Censored and ‘Obscene’ in Solitary
by Sarah Shourd
After a huge hunger strike to protest the state prison system’s inhuman conditions, California is threatening to ban any written material deemed “oppositional to authority and society.”
Last week, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation proposed sweeping new regulations for mail going both into and out of the state’s prisons and jails. Coined “obscenity regulations,” on face value they appear to ban material that “depicts or describes sexual misconduct.” Yet, if you scroll further down the long, technical parameters laid out on CDCR’s website you’ll find they’re casting a much broader net—such as censorship of any material deemed “oppositional to authority and society.”
“There’s a lot of non-sexual speech that will be banned if these regulations are put into effect,” says Paul Wright, Director of Prison Legal News. “This isn’t a new tactic, for hundreds of years the guise of ‘obscenity’ has been used to crush political speech, not just among prisoners, originally it was used to punish criticism of the church.”
It’s no coincidence that these enhanced restrictions are coming from California, where 29,000 prisoners went on hunger strike for 60 days last year in a historically unprecedented protest against inhumane prison conditions—namely prolonged solitary confinement. A large part of the hunger strike’s success in capturing international attention had to do with the ability of activists, lawyers and family members to get out the voices and opinions of the men inside who initiated the strike, at least in part through written correspondence. Under these new regulations, letters like those might not make it through next time.
“These prisoners are essentially being punished for trying to alert the media to conditions of extreme solitary confinement inside California’s prison,” says Peter Sussman, a retired journalist who fought for years for media access to prisoners. “The California hunger strike was successful at educating the public because information got in and out—CDCR wants to make sure they cut off every channel of communication, that this never happens again.”
Marie Levin is the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa (aka Ronnie Dewberry), who’s been isolated at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California for over a quarter of a century. It was not a violent act that landed Jamaa in the “hole”—23 hours a day in a windowless cell, no contact visits and zero phone privileges. It was being validated as a “gang-associate” and singled out for state’s harshest punishment, Jamaa asserts, based solely on his political views.
“My brother still has the liberty of getting his ideas out through his writings,” says Levin, “that’s basically all he has left. I can’t imagine how he would handle losing that.”
Jamaa writes for the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, a likely candidate for censorship if these new regulations are passed. In fact, any publication that has printed criticism of CDCR’s policies, from the Abolitionist to the New York Times, can be deemed “oppositional to authority” and banned under these new regulations.
“I can’t imagine this will stand under judicial inquiry,” says California Attorney Charles Carbone, “anyone who knows the law will raise an eyebrow when they look at these documents— they’re constitutionally outrageous—we have a long history in this country of U.S. Supreme Court precedents that protect freedom of speech…these regulations are begging for a lawsuit of the highest order.”
“CDCR says they are shifting from a system of gang-validation based on mere association to a conduct-based system,” Carbone continues, “where a prisoner actually has to do something to be deemed a dangerous gang member. But they are leaving a pretty big back door open here that will allow them to use the same flimsy evidence—a letter, a photograph, a book or newspaper—to justify placement in long-term isolation. Actually, these regulations are potentially worse because they can call something a prisoner writes ‘contraband’ and justify sanctioning them as well.”
“It’s actually quite cyclical,’ says Carbone. “Many prisoners in long-term isolation have become politically radicalized because they have lived in the harshest conditions the state has ever imagined. The system takes men and puts them in conditions that radicalize them, then uses their radicalism (in the form of written material) as an opportunistic way to justify further isolation.”
“You could say that many people are warped when they go into prison,”notes Sussman, “but we are then putting them in a situation that places them in permanent opposition to society. When they get out they will act out whatever was done to them in various ways.”
On Tuesday, Marie Levin went to a hearing in California’s capitol Sacramento, standing beside many other family members, activists and lawyers to voice her opinion on how these proposed regulations will effect her brother, her family and society at large. “It’s important for the public to judge for themselves,” she says. “If these guys are really are the ‘worst of the worst,’ then what does CDCR have to hide? Why are they so threatened by their voices? Let the public be the judge.”
“There’s no public safety issue being served here,” concludes Carbone. “These regulations will decrease transparency by killing speech—prisoners are the eyes and ears of the public inside these public institutions.”
Journalistic access to prisons and prisoners has been slowly chipped away for decades. Under current California law, media may not conduct face-to-face interviews with prisoners unless approved by the prison administration, a rare event. Even during CDCR’s tours journalists are only permitted to speak with prisoners that have been vetted and handpicked by prison officials. Which raises the question: are CDCR’s new regulations meant to protect the pubic from dangerous criminals, as they claim, or to cover up abuses and squelch dissent?
“The big thing is how prisons are run,” continues Wright. “There’s little to no oversight or government accountability—the result is a huge amount of corruption and malpractice. Prisoners dying form medical neglect, horrible treatment of the mentally ill, rampant abuses…all of this is obscured. It’s often only prisoners that can give the public even an inkling of what’s really going on inside.”
“The news media is—now more than ever before—the court of last resort,” continues Sussman. “The more restricted their access to prisons and prisoners becomes, the less effective the press will be in its oversight role. This, in turn, hampers the public’s ability to shape government policy, evaluate prison practices, correct abuses and generally reassess our costly…system of criminal justice.”