Last year, about 30,000 inmates staged a hunger strike in California prisons to protest subpar living conditions and the use of long-term solitary confinement. In response, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is planning to implement new censorship regulations that prisoners and prisoners' rights groups say are overly broad and meant as retribution for political organizing. Carol Strickman, a longtime staff attorney with the prisoners' rights group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, said the new regulations may also violate the First Amendment, adding that they are so broad, they could mean prisoners wouldn't be allowed to "write about anything in their life [or] receive anything about anyone in their life, or about themselves."
CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas said the new regulations were designed to improve clarity about what materials should be considered contraband and which constitute threats to prison security. But one inmate, whose name was withheld by the Bay Area-based Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity (PHSS) group for fear of retaliation, told PHSS that he and other prisoners maintain that CDCR leaders "seek to not only halt all criticism, but also the education and political development of underclass segments of their population — particularly those who are imprisoned .... They seek to control all we read, see, learn or think."
In a written statement, PHSS stated that the regulations would serve "to censor writings that educate the public about what is actually occurring inside the prisons," and that even mainstream publications that publish pieces concerning prison issues, such as The New York Times, could end up on what will, under the new regulations, be known as the Centralized List of Disapproved Publications.
PHSS said the new rules, however, would most likely be used to target the letters of prisoner activists, as well as publications that regularly cover prisoners' rights, such as the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.
Currently, correctional officers in prison mailrooms who screen the mail that comes in and out of a prison and withhold gun magazines, pornographic images, and communication with minors, can also withhold mail they deem to be a "security threat" to the institution — a standard that activists say is already too subjective.
Commonly confiscated items currently include seemingly innocuous Aztec-influenced artwork, which is used against inmates as evidence of a connection to the Mexican Mafia gang, according to PHSS. If found by prison officials, such art can lead to years in solitary confinement for an inmate. The autobiography of Black Panther and prisoners' rights activist George Jackson is another commonly seized material. Joe A'Jene Valentine, a prisoner at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, wrote in a letter to the Bay View that he was told by prison administrators to discontinue his political writings, which excerpted those of George Jackson, if he wanted a favorable parole board review. The Bay View had a number of its copies returned around the time of last year's hunger strike, when it published articles critical of CDCR.
The new rules, however, could result in the total banning of publications like the Bay View, because they call for "disallowing publications that indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society." The CDCR's Simas said it would be up to the department's Division of Adult Institutions to decide what "oppositional to authority and society" means.
Attorney Strickman derided the new regulations as containing "ominous language," revealing "political underpinnings: a broad mandate to censor social change organizations," such as those involved in prison reform efforts.
The new rules also ban materials that "indicate an association with" members of a prison gang, or in the department's new lingo, a "Security Threat Group." Again, what counts as "gang-associated" will be up to the CDCR.
"In prison, if you have hairdye, that's [clearly] contraband, because you're not allowed to have it under the regs," said Strickman. "But when writings become contraband, that's where the First Amendment comes into play." The vagueness of the new rules puts them in constitutionally murky territory, she said.
The Supreme Court previously ruled that the First Amendment entitles prisoners to receive and send mail, "subject only to the institution's right to censor letters or withhold delivery if necessary to protect institutional security." But prisoners and their advocates are particularly concerned that the CDCR, an organization that's received a lot of criticism about its lack of transparency, now gets to decide what makes a letter or a magazine a security risk.
Making matters worse, the CDCR has enforced a media access ban since 1996, meaning the department has full say over which prisoners journalists can — and cannot — communicate with. Nine bills to improve media access in state prisons have been vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown and his predecessors. All received big financial support from the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), the prison guards' union, which spent about $2 million to help elect Brown. The governor also accepted tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from the Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, the largest of the private prison contractors that get much of their business from the state's multibillion-dollar prison industry.
"People need to know what happens in our prisons," said Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for the anti-prison group Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), at the time of Brown's last veto of media access to prisons in 2012. "While Governor Brown has been in office thousands of people have gone on hunger strike, and the Supreme Court intervened to address severe overcrowding and medical neglect." Restricting access, Harris added, "begs the question, what doesn't he want the public to see?"
Correction: The original version of this story erroneously stated that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is implementing the new regulations. The CDCR plans to institute them, but had not finalized its decision to do so when this story went to print.