Prison ban of communist newspaper raises activists' ire, sparks First Amendment questions
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."
By law, each time a publication is not delivered to inmates it was sent to, the prison must notify the publishers. RCP Publications wasted no time contacting the ACLU of Southern California for help, in the meantime drafting a petition to call for a reversal of the ban. A Public Records Act request by the ACLU revealed that RCP Publications only received two letters, even though at least 11 issues were withheld from inmates.
After a few months of making the rounds online, the petition had collected the names of lefty luminaries Bill Ayers, Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney, and musicians Ozomatli and Saul Williams, among many others. Their collective statement included a disclaimer noting that they "may not agree with all or any of the content" of Revolution, but they were unified in opposition to the ban of the newspaper on principle.
"We strongly oppose the denial of freedom of information for prisoners, including the right to educate and transform themselves while in prison," the petition states. "Any infringement on this right for California prisoners cannot be allowed to stand. It is a precedent that has ominous implications throughout the prison system in the U.S. and for broader society at large."
Several months later, after the ACLU contacted CDCR with a Public Records Act request, Pelican Bay Warden G.D. Lewis responded with a letter stating: "To date, all issues of Revolution Newspaper mailed to [Pelican Bay] inmates in the past nine months have been delivered" and "No ban of Revolution Newspaper is in effect ... I am considering this matter closed."
Neil McDowell, assistant warden of Chuckawalla Valley prison, wrote in a separate letter: "This is to advise you that your publication entitled 'Revolution' does not have a blanket ban at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (CVSP). The memo dated Feb. 16, 2010 authored by Sergeant L. Nunez was inaccurate in stating as such."
In its earlier letters to RCP Publications, CDCR justified the ban by saying that Revolution Newspaper was "determined to be contraband because it promotes disruption and overthrow of the government and incites violence to do so" and mentioned that it "promotes governmental anarchy."
Asked which issue or article in particular had led to this determination, CDCR spokesperson Cassandra Hockenson said she could not comment. "They know," she said, referring to the publishers of Revolution. "I can't comment. I can't address what the content was. They should be able to identify it for you. I think the burden of proof should go to them."
When we asked Mike Holman of the PRLF if he knew why CDCR made these statements, he said, "We very strongly want to get to the bottom of what process they used to arrive at those conclusions. We don't know, and we are trying to learn, why they banned the newspapers."
Hockenson insisted that there was no ban and that only a single issue had been considered "questionable," even though CDCR documents identify at least 11 issues that had been confiscated based on information released in response to the Public Records Act request.
CDCR has come under scrutiny for censorship issues in the past. One signatory on the Revolution Newspaper petition is Paul Wright, who heads the Brattleboro, Vt.-based Prison Legal News — a publication he started after his own release from prison. Wright has won numerous lawsuits against CDCR after his own newspaper, which covers inmate rights and prison issues, was banned from California correctional facilities. Asked to comment on the Revolution Newspaper ban, he said, "It just seems to fall into the whole pattern of a trend toward further isolating prisoners."