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Staff of the San Quentin News
Photo by Eddie Herena

I’ve spent most of my 27 years incarcerated in California practicing journalism. I’ve witnessed and experienced state attempts to censor and silence prisoners’ free expression. And I know how important it is to shed light on what goes on inside prisons.

Censorship behind bars has many faces. Banning books is probably the most well-known tactic. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has its own bag of tricks. 

At San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, in the Bay Area, where I reside, prison administration reviews stories from the prison newspaper, the San Quentin News, to make sure each edition doesn’t pose safety or security issues that might jeopardize staff or prisoners. In my opinion, that type of review — of stories written by and for the prison population — can be reasonable and falls in line with previous precedent set by our judicial system.

However, prisons should not be able to censor what we write for outside publications. And that’s not just my opinion; it’s the law.

Prisoners retain the right to free speech under the First Amendment. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Turner v. Safley that “a prison may censor or impose restrictions on speech so long as there is a ‘valid, rational connection’ between such restrictions and ‘legitimate penological objectives’ like security and rehabilitation,” according to Global Forum Online’s guide to laws around prison journalism

But it’s not at all clear how often the state has “legitimate penological interests” in restraining or seizing information produced by prisoners.

Attempts to silence activists

In my nearly three decades behind bars, I have found that state motives are often self-serving, intended to protect its officials’ corruption inside.

The case of jailhouse lawyer Mumia Abu-Jamal is a good example. For more than 40 years, the system has attempted to silence him.

Abu-Jamal was convicted of killing a police officer in 1982 but maintains his innocence. He spent decades on death row before being sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in Pennsylvania, and has written many books about prison. I put his “Jailhouse Lawyers” on the level of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.” 

In the late 1990s, Abu-Jamal sued the leadership of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections over a rule that prohibited prisoners from “carrying on a business or profession.” He argued that the prison system was using the rule as a pretext to retaliate against him for the content  of his writing and radio commentaries. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled in his favor.

In 2014, Abu-Jamal once again found himself at the center of the fight for free speech in prison when he gave an 11-minute pre-recorded graduation speech to students at Goddard College in Vermont.

Following his speech, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law restricting people convicted of crimes, and sometimes accused of crimes, from speaking publicly in ways that might re-traumatize victims — though Abu-Jamal's graduation speech did not have anything to do with the officer he was convicted of killing.

In 2015, Chief Judge Christopher C. Conner of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania ruled that the state law was unconstitutional. He argued that the legislation was overly broad, too vague and violated the free speech of incarcerated people.

“A past criminal offense does not extinguish the offender's constitutional right to free expression,” Conner wrote in his decision. “The First Amendment does not evanesce at the prison gate, and its enduring guarantee of freedom of speech subsumes the right to expressive conduct that some may find offensive.”

A system of retaliation

I have been in the middle of these battles for free speech behind bars. More than 20 years ago, I wrote several political essays that are still unpublished. The essays, written between 1998 and 2009, cover many subjects, including police misconduct, 9/11, the ongoing conflict in Palestine, the Iraq War, my arrival to prison after spending more than two years in county jail and more.

When I arrived at San Quentin, in 2011, the prison’s special security squad — or “goon squad,” in prison jargon — confiscated all of those essays, including my notes and research. I was then falsely accused of being an associate of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang.

During that investigation, one prison guard told me that I had read all the same books as George Jackson, the co-founder of the Black Guerilla Family who was killed by a guard at San Quentin on Aug. 21, 1971, while allegedly holding a gun and trying to escape prison. I had to remind the officer that I was a young child when Jackson died.

In one federal civil rights suit I filed in response to CDCR’s investigation, I argued that I was being censored to intimidate me, and to discourage and dissuade me from writing (and reading certain books). I alleged that the prison's investigators interpreted my reading and writing activity as evidence of my involvement in a prison gang.

It would take me a little over eight years of filing grievances and a civil rights lawsuit to extricate myself from the state’s narrative about me as well as the retaliatory treatment I received.

The case was fully settled in 2020. I am no longer under investigation for being connected to the Black Guerilla Family. A federal magistrate judge maintains jurisdiction over the case to “enforce compliance.” And most of my notes and research were returned to me.

But even when a prisoner prevails, he never really wins. My settlement agreement and release, signed by all parties, left the state with a stained memory of me.

Years later, when I appeared before the parole board, I was given a five-year denial for posing a “threat to public safety.”

Prisons need a spotlight

The prison “thought police” prefer that people in custody keep unpopular ideas to themselves, out of reach from the public. In some ways, speaking truth to the public, or to power, is one of the most egregious crimes you can commit in prison. And if that truth-teller is a Black man like myself, the seriousness of the so-called violation is compounded.

Prison Policy Initiative’s report “found that while explicit bans on prison journalism are rare, a web of complex and vague policies make” practicing journalism “extremely difficult and sometimes risky.”

But if we can’t spotlight what’s happening behind bars, who can? The truth about what takes place in prison has to come from jailhouse lawyers, journalists, writers and artists.

My own work from 2021 highlighted problems with CDCR’s COVID-19 pandemic response, and a more recent story of mine outlined how the state has neglected more than $1 billion in maintenance needs at San Quentin. The incarcerated writer and PJP Advisory board member John J. Lennon has covered mental health treatment failings inside Attica Correctional Facility in New York. And earlier this year, PJP contributor Kory McClary published a story about the death of a man in the cell above him. MindSite News and The Guardian used Kory’s reporting to investigate that man’s death, and found that prison staff did not check on him as frequently as they should have in his final hours.

Free and untethered discourse on matters of public interest is supposed to be one of the bedrocks of American democracy. The public’s right to know does not exclude what prisoners have to say or write.

Surveillance and censorship of prisoners occur from coast to coast. Some of these actions might be warranted, but states overreach far too often to achieve their overly broad aim of ensuring public safety.

From the Golden State to the Empire State, sometimes prison officials have to be reminded of the facts.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.