This story is over 5 years old.


A New Pennsylvania Law Tramples the Free Speech Rights of Prisoners

Pennsylvania just passed a law targeting the "obscene celebrity" cultivated by prisoners. But for many inmates, writing is the only way out of a life of drugs and crime.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett signing the law on Tuesday. Photos via Flickr user Joe Piette

America has long held a fascination with its criminals and convicts. From Charles Manson to John Gotti, prisoners have held court from their cells, mesmerizing the public. And as long as the obsession has held, there've been detractors in the government determined to prevent cons from capitalizing off their crimes or notoriety.


On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law a measure to curtail what he called the "obscene celebrity" cultivated by prisoners at the expense of their victims. The Revictimization Relief Act authorizes the censoring of public addresses of convicts and ex-offenders if a judge agrees that allowing them to speak would cause mental anguish to the victim.

The victims' rights bill was passed to target prison celebrity Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted and sentenced to death for shooting and killing Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner in 1981. His sentence was commuted to life without parole in 2012, but the case remains controversial. Abu-Jamal has become an award winning journalist and author by writing from his cell block. His thought-provoking books include Live from Death Row and All Things Censored, which have won him international fame and a dedicated audience.

Of course, people like Abu-Jamal tend to make law-and-order types very, very angry.

"Nobody has a right to continually taunt the victims of their violent crimes in the public square," Governor Corbett said Tuesday. "This unrepentant cop killer has tested the limits of decency. Gullible activists and celebrities have continued to feed this killer's ego."

Standing near the spot where Faulkner was killed, and with the cop's widow at his side, Corbett signed the bill, which aims to stop "conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim." The measure was fast-tracked through the state senate and passed on October 16, 11 days after Mumia delivered a pre-recorded commencement address to graduates at Goddard College in Vermont.


"To be in your car, driving along in California, only to hear him doing a commencement speech on the radio… it rips open a scab," Mrs. Faulkner told reporters. As Corbett signed what critics are calling the Mumia Bill, 40 protesters in orange jumpsuits chanted, "Free Mumia." But State Representative Mike Vereb captured the crux of establishment disdain for Mumia's infamy by likening him to "Paris Hilton in a prison jumpsuit."

The whole episode stinks of political sensationalism. Corbett is languishing in the polls ahead of next month's elections. In that sense, the new law seems like a cynical ploy for votes.

"This is a political stunt by a failing politician who is seeking support by using fear," Abu-Jamal told the Prison Radio Project this week. "Politicians do it all the time." The law can be seen as a collective punishment inflicted on all prisoners, but Mumia already won a case in 1997, Abu-Jamal v. Pricewhich gave him the right to pen prose. It's a case I leaned on during my own tenure as a prison writer.

After all, Mumia Abu-Jamal isn't just a news story to me—he's an inspiration and hero of sorts. When I read his book, Live from Death Row, in 1995, it gave me the ambition to pursue a career as a journalist myself, despite my incarceration. So while I respect the state of Pennsylvania, the widow, and their concerns, officials there are seriously overlooking the value of Mumia's success and what it means to other inmates who want to see writing and journalism as a viable career choice as they come out of prison.

Prisoners all across the nation are writing articles and books, obtaining skills that could help them move on from a life of drugs and crime. Denying them that opportunity is practically Orwellian. Society needs to know what is going on in the netherworld of corruption and violence that is the American prison system. Censorship is wrong, and by taking away Mumia's voice under the guise of victims' rights, the state of Pennsylvania is robbing the public of their First Amendment right to be informed. These are the tenets our country was founded on.

The benefits that come from prison writing outweigh the mental anguish of one person. To wit, the Supreme Court decided in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment trumps emotional distress. But our nation's correctional facilities continue to shut down prisons to journalists and to punish prison writers. I was thrown in solitary confinement many times for my writing. The rules state that prisoners are allowed to write, but once a prison writer achieves success and actually earns an audience, that's when the trouble starts.

I went through several battles during my incarceration, fighting for my right to be heard and recognized. Prison writers like Mumia, Jack Henry Abbott, Dannie Martin, and George Jackson showed me that I could make productive use of my time despite the many years I had left to serve. Mumia is a fighter. He will not give in or lay down. Do we really think another attempt to censor him with a victims' right law will silence the guy? I, for one, look forward to his continued journalistic endeavors. That's the only way he has left to reach the world beyond the prison walls that confine him.

Seth Ferranti, author of Prison Stories, the Street Legends series, and The Supreme Team, has written for the Daily Beast, the Fix, and other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.