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How California's Prisons Are Making It Harder for Inmates to Organize and Protest

A whole bunch of prison newsletters are about to be declared "obscene" and banned.

San Quentin prison in Marin County, California. Photo via Flickr user Andrew Reid Wildman, Artist, Writer, Photographer

In February 2013 a group of inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison called for a statewide hunger strike to protest the widespread and sometimes capricious use of special housing units (SHUs, a burreaucratic term for solitary confinement). Germinated in a small collective that included representatives from four different gangs, the call quickly spread throughout the state's lockups, and on July 8, 30,000 men in 25 prisons refused their meals, attracting national and international media attention. At the end of the two-month protest the state legislature promised to hold hearings to look into the use of SHUs, and some reforms have resulted, including a “step-down” program that may hasten some inmates’ transfers out of solitary.


The strike represented a feat of communication that defeated barriers of concrete, steel, and distance, and it had relied, in part, on the newspapers, magazines, and prison newsletters that had spread the word about the protest.

“The access to the media—from mainstream newspapers to more prison-specific publications—empowered these prisoners to strike,” said Oakland attorney Anne Weills, who represents a group of prisoners suing the state for keeping them in solitary for over a decade. “It gave them a sense of individual and collective empowerment.”

But Weills wasn’t the only person who noticed how the prisoners’ use of the media had facilitated a stunning denunciation of SHUs. The prison authorities also took note—and now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is proposing a ban on publications that address prison concerns under the guise of clamping down on “obscene materials.”

In California prisons, “obscene materials” has traditionally referred to a fairly narrow realm of images and written material, including photos or drawings of nude people or sexual penetration and pornography involving minors. Since the CDCR first adopted these prohibitions in 1995, there have been no updates, modifications, or additions to the list of contraband publications—until now. In April, the CDCR announced that it would change the rules to prohibit any publication that has an association with a “Security Threat Group” (STG, the new term of art for gang) or any material that might “indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.”


In an interview, Captain Joe Stein, the chief of CDCR’s Standardized Procedures Unit in the Divisions of Adult Institutions, described this rule change as being necessary to prevent any “disruptions” to prison routines.

“Obviously the intent of that statement is to simply reference disruptive groups—groups that come together for a purpose, that are disruptive to the operation of a prison, like breaking the law or drug trafficking,” he said. “That sentence was used to minimize disruptions—of groups getting together, work stoppages, that sort of thing.”

Would hunger strikes be considered “disruptive” behavior?

“Oh, absolutely. Each participant that initiated that were validated STG members.”

In fact, the prisoners had gone on the hunger strike partly to protest against the onerous, frequently arbitrary designation of “validated STG member.” The label can be applied to an inmate based on scant scraps of evidence such as a doodle that resembles a “gang symbol” in a cell, a conversation with a gang member, or even posession of the wrong book.

Mary Ratcliff, the editor of the San Francisco Bay View Black National Newspaper, a 38-year-old monthly that focuses on black issues and reported extensively on the hunger strike, told me that men branded as being part of STGs frequently contribute to prison publications.

“Every single paper we’ve published since I’ve been editor for the last 22 years has had an article written by a man who is technically an ‘STG’ member,” she said. Indeed, her paper saw a sharp uptick in prison subscriptions just before last year's hunger strike from a new demographic, Latino men—an indicator of the unity the protest had generated among prisoners across racial lines.


The SF Bay View's ability to reach people both inside and outside prison makes it a particularly potent tool of communication for inmates entombed in solitary, and the paper frequently features articles that expose or criticize CDCR policies. As a result, it could easily wind up on the CDCR’s list of disapproved publications, as could other prison-centric outlets like Solitary Watch, the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights newsletter, and California Prison Focus.

But any publication could be vulnerable to censure under the new rules. According to Stein, if a prison deems a particular issue of a magazine to contain a single “disruptive” article it can ban the single “obscene” issue from all prisons; if a publication contains disruptive content for 12 consecutive months it will be disallowed permanently.

The CDCR has been collecting public comments since it announced the changes, and activists are continuing to fight against these new policies—this week SF Bay View's legal counsel submitted a letter to CDCR that details how the proposed regulations' violated the constitutional rights of prisoners and publishers.

But ultimately the CDCR can do what it wants. “It’s a pro forma issue,” said Weills. “CDCR has a particularly distinctive status from California legislature; they have a superstructure to the state.” It appears the public comments period has little other function than to maintain a veneer of democratic debate.

When I asked Stein if he expects a fight from the public and prisoners’ families at the public comments hearing, he replied, “We’re giving more than we’re taking away here,” referring to the fact that the new regulations relax the prohibitions against textual descriptions of carnal activity. Inmates won’t be able to read articles protesting the deplorable conditions of the prisons they live in, but they will be able to read all the erotica they can get their hands on.

“We are essentially allowing books like Fifty Shades of Grey,” Stein said. “Inmates are going to be happier with that.”

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter.