Abolition of prison behind prison walls

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The tenth issue of Black Dragon Anarchist, from the spring of 1982, was gloomy. Carl Harp, journalist for the newspaper produced entirely in prison by a collective of incarcerated people, was assassinated in his cell after writing the introduction to the subject. Entitled “The Dragon Speaks” and offering no indication that his life was in imminent danger, the posthumous introduction offers a glimpse of the difficult climate of the time.

Founded in 1977, the Anarchist black dragon shared the common concerns of those incarcerated on the left at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, Washington. As the name of the newspaper suggests, the authors were staunch anarchists who advocated the abolition of prisons. In the third issue, the collective argues that all prisons “are used to break people up, to trample them into a mold that no sane person would gladly accept.” Although the publication was not easily accessible outside of the state penitentiary, they had allies outside who helped them share their work.

However, when Harp contacted anarchists from beyond the Walls for help with his research, they reportedly rejected his requests. After his death, the same group appears to have allied together while neglecting those inside. An anonymous writer wrote in the spring 1982 issue, “The same radicals were still ‘too busy’ (now with a press release on [Harp’s] death, I guess). The voices of those in prison have often been ignored from the outside, even with people who share an anti-prison stance, in part because of the difficulty in communicating behind prison walls.

The cover of Anarchist black dragon, # 8

While prison journalism empowers incarcerated people to raise awareness of the issues that those behind bars face, the influence and power of their work depends on the value that the public and other incarcerated people place on it.

Journalism in prison is almost as old as the country itself. The first prison newspaper, Thin hope, was published on March 24, 1800. Over 450 prison newspapers have been published and distributed to incarcerated people over the past 220 years, but the number of newspapers has declined over time. Indeed, the time during which the Anarchist black dragon was published, between the late 1970s and the mid 1980s, marked a period of decline in prison journalism.

These two decades have marked a rapid transition in the rights of prison journalists and editors. In a December 1979 issue of Virginia Law Review, the notes section mentions that the case of Pittman v. Hutto “ruled that prison officers may suppress the publication and distribution of a newspaper edited by inmates if they reasonably and sincerely believe that the contents of the newspaper would threaten the legitimate penological interests of the state.” A series of rulings in California would contradict more conservative rulings, such as access to a free press in an important part of the First Amendment. However, as the journalist notes Jonathan Peters in a Colombian Journalism Review item, “The First Amendment generally guarantees communication rights very well, but it is a fickle source for access rights, which come from a complex system of statutes, regulations, common law and a few problematic decisions. of the Supreme Court. “

The difficulties extended beyond legal debates. Contrary to New York Times and local newspapers across the country, the prison newspapers were reported, presented and distributed in an extremely small area. “They didn’t send them to publishers. They were the editors ”, James McGrath Morris, author of the non-fiction book Journalism in prison, JSTOR Daily said. “According to the prisons I visited in the early 1980s, most of them had printing works where they trained inmates in typography, printing, and so on. Prison journalists of the time used typewriters similar to the Selectric to write their stories, like many other journalists of the time. Today almost extinct, there are still typewriters in prisons as a 2012 issue of Prison legal news attests. Previous issues of this newspaper were produced in prison by inmates and are available in Reveal Digital’s US Prison Newspaper Collection on JSTOR.

From issue 10 of Anarchist Black Dragon, Spring 1982. Click on the image for a closer look or to read the full issue.

Newspapers have suffered both heavy and nuanced forms of censorship, the latter of which can still be overwhelming, according to McGrath Morris. Assembling a newspaper requires materials like ink and paper, and some of these items could be delayed or disappear. If the prison administration doesn’t like what a particular newspaper is doing, according to McGrath Morris, “it’s not necessarily surprising, the order for paper or ink should be delayed. This is not a very easy thing to appeal because you have to prove that they purposely did not order enough to publish this month’s issue. Other incarcerated people could also intimidate prison journalists into not reporting on certain issues, which is also difficult for prison journalists to prove.

Even though their newspapers were not explicitly anarchist like the one based in Walla Walla, Washington, many prison newspapers challenged the status quo. Perhaps because of this, they faced censorship issues. Some prisons in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to prevent prison journalists from printing certain articles. “When the prison authorities said you couldn’t publish this particular article, San Quentin [State Prison’s newspaper], for example, left a blank space for one of the articles, but the courts have consistently supported inmates, ”said McGrath Morris.

Prison journalism gives inmates power and a means to educate them about systemic problems in prisons. The multitude of court battles that ensued when prison administrations attempted to censor, indicates that the newspapers may have been perceived as a threat. Courts tended to side with incarcerated people on the grounds that they were defending their First Amendment, the right to free speech. Any censorship, it was determined, had to be based on legitimate government or penological interests, and not simply to stifle the free expression of beliefs, no matter how critical or defamatory those beliefs may be.

The 1979 issue of Virginia Law Review summarizes the legal framework as follows:

The fact that the state is not responsible for publishing a newspaper does not affect the degree of protection required by the First Amendment. In each case in which a court overturned the content-based deletion of a prison newspaper, the court ruled that once the prison authorities allow a newspaper to exist in the prison, the newspaper cannot be deleted. in violation of the First Amendment.

The solution adopted by the prison administration to circumvent the First Amendment was simple: not to allow a newspaper to exist within the prison. Prisons began to permanently restrict access to the tools needed to do the job, typewriters and printing equipment, without technically engaging in censorship. The number of prison newspapers has dropped.

Extract from the cover of volume 1, number 6 of Anarchist black dragon.

Currently, there are less than ten prison newspapers in 2021, according to the Prison Journalism Project website. PJP is currently training inmates across the country to become journalists, with the work of its students being published both on the PJP website and in local and national publications. PJP contributor Patricia Elane Trimble, an incarcerated writer, said Poynter that the work of the organization is important because “your only hope is to go outside the system” for changes to occur in prisons and in the criminal justice system. One of the main advocacy issues for the Anarchist black dragon was to fight for the abolition of prisons, which required and will still require the support of non-incarcerated people. For example, in the tenth issue of the journal of this collective, they written about the ways in which non-incarcerated people can be better allies for people in prison. Although this issue was printed almost forty years ago, people continue to organize for some of the calls to action featured in the newspaper.

The first of the concepts listed was the “Prisoners Booklet”. The objective of this project was “to get publishers and booksellers to donate books so that they can be sent to prisoners”. Much like the struggle to allow prison journalists to write and distribute prison newspapers, there have been numerous court cases in the 20th century regarding whether or not inmates have access to books, and if so, what types of books. This is not an authoritarian story, but rather an ongoing public debate. In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union files complaint against South Carolina detention center to ban books and other reading materials, and the detention center reversed its policy in 2012.

Another idea of ​​the collective was to help incarcerated people see their family members and loved ones. “The idea of ​​this device is to allow relatives of detainees to access their own interior”, writes the collective. “Many detainees are held a considerable distance from the area where they have family or friends. This has not changed for decades. A 2015 report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that 63 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons are over 100 miles from their families.

From issue 10 of Anarchist Black Dragon, Spring 1982. Click on the image for a closer look or to read the full issue.

Although prison journalism is not explicitly pro-abolitionist, both prison journalism and prison abolitionists highlight the inhumane practices that take place in prisons. Both groups also spend time trying to educate people outside the walls on how the legal system systematically criminalizes people of color, people with mental illness and other marginalized groups.

While many of their programs are still in place today in groups advocating for prison reform and abolition, the Anarchist black dragonThe flame went out shortly after the death of its leader, Carl Harp. In the last issue of the collective journal, an anthology, an activist by the first name Jeanne wrote, “the literary and physical actions taken by members of the Collective and other detainees to counter massive, inhuman and illegal abuses should have served as a lesson … unfortunately, it seems that ‘ they did. not.”


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