Censored: calls for a revolution

Prison ban of communist newspaper raises activists' ire, sparks First Amendment questions

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Revolution newspaper was temporarily banned from some California prisons

rebeccab@sfbg.com

The publications that have been officially banned from California's state prisons are mostly pornographic, with two exceptions. The first is a periodical published by a white nationalist hate group, and the second is Revolution Newspaper — the self-styled "Voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party."

While there is some confusion whether Revolution Newspaper was indeed formally banned or not, it was apparently cleared for distribution after an organization that handles inmate subscriptions, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of signatories on a petition, publicly sounded the alarm that prisoners weren't receiving their weekly copies.

According to state regulations, the decision to confiscate publications that prisoners receive in the mail can be made by mailroom sergeants, wardens, or at the state level, so more publications may be getting withheld at individuals' discretion than appear on the official statewide list of banned reading materials.

State regulations define as contraband literature containing sexually explicit content, hate speech, promotion of violence, or anything advocating rebellion against prison authorities. The Guardian and other alternative newsweeklies have often been rejected by prison authorities because of the escort and sensual massage ads in the back of the papers.

To date, no one at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has provided a clear explanation about why Revolution Newspaper was being intercepted by prison authorities. Furthermore, the state's more recent decision to allow the paper suggests that the publication does not fit the criteria of contraband.

The outcry over access to Revolution raises questions about whether a segment of the population that is stripped of virtually all other freedoms while incarcerated can still access ideas and information.

Pelican Bay State Prison is a maximum-security lockup in Crescent City that houses some of California's most dangerous inmates. Of the 800 inmates nationwide who subscribe to Revolution Newspaper, the largest single cluster, 45, reside there.

Their subscriptions are funded by the Prisoners Revolutionary Literature Fund (PRLF), a Chicago-based organization that sends communist literature to inmates nationwide. The paper has been distributed in Pelican Bay for at least eight years, and inmates often have their letters published in Revolution's pages.

The publication is an arm of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), U.S.A., a Maoist organization started in 1975 in the Bay Area. While much of the paper's content is consumed with railing against the evils of "the system," a great deal of ink is also dedicated to effusive praise for RCP founder Bob Avakian, a cult-like figure who's hailed as a "rare and precious leader" by party members and rumored to have gone into a self-imposed exile in France.

The RCP has weathered its share of criticism over the years, whether from right-wingers incensed by their anti-American rhetoric or from snarky columnists regarding their whole project as a yawner. Nonetheless, inmates have written to Revolution declaring the publication to be "a lifeline," and to a mailroom sergeant at Pelican Bay, the furious calls for a revolution (or perhaps the inmates' letters) were apparently enough to deem the newspaper contraband.

In February, the newspaper's Chicago-based publisher, RCP Publications, received a notice from CDCR stating that the newspaper would no longer be distributed at Pelican Bay, signed by a mailroom sergeant. In a second letter, the CDCR informed publishers that Revolution would no longer be delivered to inmates at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison or any other state institution, stating, "The publication Revolution is ban [sic] from all institutions within the state of California."