Revolution #218, November 28, 2010

Update on Overturn the Ban at Pelican Bay State Prison campaign


In February 2010, the first official word arrived from authorities at the supermax Pelican Bay State Prison in California—Revolution newspaper was banned. The Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF) provides the subscriptions for 45 prisoners at Pelican Bay, one of America's most notorious hellholes. Days later, Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP) sent a similar notice.

A lengthy political and legal fight ensued to Overturn the Ban at Pelican Bay and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons.


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Through the efforts of the PRLF and its legal counsel, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California (ACLU-F, S. Cal.), extensive evidence was gathered that a blanket ban had been in place for over five months before there was any notification from Pelican Bay officials. This was a gross violation of the California prison system's own rules and regulations for barring publications from the California prison system—the outcome of a court-supervised settlement won by Prison Legal News.

PRLF mounted a public campaign. A statement to overturn the ban was signed by many lawyers, human rights groups, anti-censorship and prison activists, academics, and other prominent voices. The San Francisco Bay Guardian ran an important article. On the legal front, the ACLU pursued getting the prison system to turn over all the documents related to the ban, making strong arguments about why a blanket ban was unconstitutional, and further that there was no basis to bar even a single issue of Revolution.

Over many months, Pelican Bay prison officials wriggled under the glare. They made the ridiculous claim that in the original February ban letter, they had mistakenly omitted four critical words, thus converting a total ban into a ban of only one issue of the newspaper. Later, feeling the growing pressure, Pelican Bay's warden sent a letter to the ACLU stating that "no ban of Revolution newspaper is in effect" and that all newspapers have been delivered to all prisoner subscribers, and that they "consider the matter closed." The warden has yet to openly acknowledge the five-month-long blanket ban. CVSP stonewalled and claimed that the case was moot due to the fact there were no longer subscribers at their institution. Conveniently, Chuckawalla Valley prison officials transferred out the prisoner who appealed the ban of Revolution there. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has still not responded to the ACLU's follow-up demand for public documents related to this situation.

Prisons Stonewall ACLU

Currently, the ACLU continues to pursue getting a response to its demands for documents, which so far have not been forthcoming. If the prison system can get away with flagrantly ignoring the ACLU, then that is a very bad precedent not only for Revolution's prison subscribers but for prisoners' basic constitutional rights. Most prisoners face situations like these without the legal help of a prestigious civil liberties group. It is not hard to imagine that if the prison officials get away with basically thumbing their noses at the ACLU, what happens to an individual prisoner's appeals? Conversely, if the ACLU succeeds fully in this situation, that will be very positive for the right of prisoners to a life of the mind. This is all the more reason why this issue needs to be pursued and not be stopped short of the goal line.

As of this writing, most prisoners at Pelican Bay that PRLF has heard from either report getting most of their issues of Revolution or at least have not reported ongoing problems. It continues to be very difficult for the PRLF and the ACLU to verify whether all prisoners are receiving all issues. Real-time communications are obviously impossible and are compounded by the fact that many prisoners are issued limited numbers of stamps each month. One prisoner even traded away future stamps in order to get a single stamp to write the PRLF.

Signs of Continuing Censorship

Indications continue that at least some issues of Revolution are not getting through to some prisoners. At least one prisoner has written that he has not received most issues. Last month, Pelican Bay officials returned a batch of various single issues of Revolution (June to October) addressed to 10 different inmates. Neither the ACLU nor PRLF has received notification from Pelican Bay State Prison, again, as required by their own regulations, that there was any problem with any issue for any prisoner. Most disturbing is the response to a prisoner subscriber's appeal in which the Pelican Bay warden states in July 2010, "the particular banned Revolution issues will not be issued to the inmate population…," contradicting his own June 2010 statement to the ACLU. Pelican Bay authorities also recently returned an envelope containing a Revolution newspaper. The envelope was stamped "contents unacceptable at Pelican Bay State Prison."

Ongoing Efforts to Uproot Censorship of Revolution in California Prisons

The PRLF and the ACLU continue to pursue getting all documents related to the ban from the California Department of Corrections and Pelican Bay and Chuckawalla Valley state prisons, and to correspond with prisoners to monitor the situation. PRLF is actively seeking remedies on a statewide level to end all instances of censorship of Revolution newspaper; to prevent the authorities from either re-instituting the ban or carrying out a de facto "underground" ban; and to prevent retaliation against prisoners who have appealed the ban.

Basic rights are at stake: the PRLF insists that news publishers, including Revolution newspaper, have access to readers in all places and situations, including state institutions; and that prisoners have a right to explore a spectrum of ideas, including revolutionary ideas, free of state interference and efforts at thought control. Prison authorities cannot arbitrarily ban Revolution, or any other alternative newspapers based on political disagreements with their content. Prison officials must reveal what was behind the ban of Revolution in the first place and turn over all relevant documents to the ACLU.

Meanwhile, subscription requests at Pelican Bay have grown in the face of the ban and requests for subscriptions have surged throughout the California prison system. In Illinois, a blanket ban is now in effect and PRLF has vowed to take the fight against censorship to the Illinois prison system next.

A Forum:
End Political Censorship in Prisons Nationwide

Featuring Speakers:

  • Clyde Young, Revolution Newspaper
    on the ban of Revolution newspaper at
    Pelican Bay State Prison and other U.S. prisons
  • Stephen Rohde, Chair, ACLU Foundation of Southern California
    on “Prisoners and the First Amendment”
  • Laura Magnani, Interim Regional Director, Pacific Mountain Region, American Friends Service Committee
    on “Ending Torture and Racism in CA Prisons”

Sunday, December 12 @ 3pm
University of Southern California (USC)
MRF 340 (Third Floor) – Social Work Building

Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund
Forensic Social Work Caucus, USC
Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (ICUJP)
ACLU of Southern California

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