Drum, a prisoner being held in solitary confinement at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, was one of a number of subscribers behind bars in three U.S. prisons who reported that prison officials withheld or confiscated their copies of the Militant. Some of the issues featured coverage of a hunger strike by inmates in California earlier this year to protest solitary confinement and other abusive treatment.
In its campaign for the right of prisoners to receive their subscriptions, the Militant got help from the American Civil Liberties Union. It also received support from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a number of publications that report on struggles by workers behind bars, including the San Francisco Bay View, Prison Legal News and several websites. In face of growing publicity and support, authorities in two Florida prisons delivered issues they had withheld to subscribers there.
After Drum contacted the Militant to report his copies had been taken away by prison authorities, the Washington ACLU agreed to work with the Militant to press the state Attorney General’s Office to intervene.
“Publishers who wish to communicate with those who, through subscription, willingly seek their point of view have a legitimate First Amendment interest in access to prisoners,” Washington ACLU attorney La Rond Baker wrote to John Dittman, Assistant Attorney General in Washington state, Nov. 25, quoting from a 1989 Supreme Court decision.
The only grounds prison officials could have had for seizing the Militant issues, Baker wrote, would be objection to “The Militant’s socialist editorial policy.”
Five days before the letter to Dittman, the Militant sent Drum copies of the four issues that had been taken from him in September.
Baker spoke to Drum on the phone Dec. 13. Drum confirmed he had received the issues and has continued to receive his subscription since.
In the course of the campaign, the Militant learned about censorship imposed on other publications that report on conditions and struggles of prisoners. Prison Focus, a quarterly “that works with and on behalf of prisoners in California’s control units and other institutions,” has been censored at Pelican Bay State Prison, where prisoners have led the round of three hunger strikes over the past two years.
“The censorship lawsuit against Pelican Bay prison officials has been drafted, sent inside for corrections, and rewritten again,” editor Ed Mead wrote in the paper’s most recent issue. “Prisoner victims of the banning of last issue of Prison Focus at the PBSP SHU [Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Units] have filed their 602s, appealed them all the way to the third and final level, thus exhausting all available administrative remedies.”
“602s” are grievance forms inmates can file with California Department of Corrections against prison actions or policies.
Victory against the prison censors, Mead says, is not mainly a legal question. “The courts act as a sort of social pressure relief valve; when there is an active movement making demands on the state, rights are handed down by the courts in an effort to defuse the potential threat,” he writes. “When the movement dies down, however, the rights are then taken away.”
“It is only the existence of an active movement for change that will ensure enforcement of the rights of prisoners,” Mead says. “Not the mere promises of prisoncrats nor the mood of the courts.”
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