It was a melee, a riot, a simmering dispute. Despite the nomenclature, coverage of the August 9 prisoner "incident" at San Quentin prison was hardly diversified. 39 prisoners were injured in one of the largest riots since 1982 at California's oldest prison, with newspapers citing tensions between Latino and white prisoners as the root cause.
There were a few differences, though, between this riot and the last demonstrating the changing nature of America's prison system. In 1982, guards fired shotguns in the air to quell the disturbance; in 2005, tear gas was the agent of choice. In the 80s, the prisoner newspaper, the San Quentin News would've covered the riots; in 2005, this newspaper no longer exists.
One of the most dramatic changes within American prisons is the near extinction of the penal press. Award-winning prison newspapers that once reached thousands- even outside of prison walls-no longer exist, and their underground counterparts are few and far between. The situation has become so dire that, according to the author of Jailhouse Journalism James McGrath Morris, "If you talked to a prisoner today, they wouldn't even know these things existed."
The death of the prison press can't be attributed to one law or one warden; instead, it can be traced through shifting attitudes on prisons and their function in society. "There was a period in American history when we really thought we could send somebody to [prison] and make a new person out of them," Morris said. "That's gone." In a country that imprisons over 2 million people-despite a decade-long drop in crime-rehabilitation is an outmoded concept.
The prison newspaper was once seen as a practical tool for rehabilitation. It was viewed as a way for prisoners to occupy themselves on the inside, but more importantly, to gain marketable skills for use on the outside. This led to prison newspaper booms in the 30s and 50s, when over 250 prisoner-run publications flourished.
The prison press also thrived in the 70s when, according to Jim Danky, Librarian of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which is home to the nation's largest collection of prison newspapers, highly politicized prisoners brought "the ethos of the 60s inside with them" and cranked out enough radical rags to fill a library. Among these were The Iced Pig edited by Weatherman and Attica prisoner Sam Melville and the San Quentin News, known for its censored report on bird excrement in the prison cafeteria.
The most notable paper of this decade, and perhaps the entire history of the prison press, was The Angolite. Under Wilbert Rideau's editorship, the paper won a Polk award for its intensive coverage of prison rape. Unlike other papers, The Angolite skirted official censorship by obtaining the support of the warden, who hoped that the presence of an independent prison newspaper would bring prestige and stability to the Louisiana prison.
But this hands-off approach was unique to Angola. As The Angolite was publishing groundbreaking pieces, prisoner-journalists throughout the country were encountering the "Son of Sam" laws which were designed to keep them from publishing their work in outside publications. A central provision states that, "The inmate may not act as reporter or publish under a byline." Though the law did not directly affect prison newspapers, it sent a message to officials that contrarian prisoner opinions needed to be heavily censored.
H. Bruce Franklin, Rutgers professor and author of Prison Writings in 20th-Century America, believes this sudden crackdown on prison journalism was a reaction to the success of newspapers in unifying prisoners and engaging outsiders. Ultimately, the goal was (and still is) information control, according to Franklin: "The worse the conditions in prison, the more necessary it is to keep people from knowing how bad the conditions are." Franklin believes that prison officials take measures to prevent prison newspapers from covering routine abuses and, in some cases, torture. "They will do everything in their power to make sure people are unaware of this," he says.
For the most part, efforts to silence prisoners have been successful. Yet, some prisoners would rather face continuous torment than have their voices muffled. Through hand-written newsletters and freelance articles, prisoners continue to act as journalists even though their writings make them targets for harassment by prison staff.
Until his 1997 execution, Bobby West published news briefs from his death row cell in Huntsville, Texas, sometimes delaying print dates because guards destroyed his research material. Dannie Martin's article on the prison AIDS epidemic in the late 80s for the San Francisco Chronicle led to numerous legal battles and time in solitary confinement. But this retaliation against Martin only further demonstrated the relevance of his Chronicle pieces, eventually leading to the publication of his articles in the book Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog
Paul Wright faced numerous censorship attempts when his then-fledgling monthly Prison Legal News (PLN) spoke bluntly on labor exploitation in American prisons, among other issues, detailing the usage of low-paid prisoners to bolster the profits of private corporations like Starbucks and Victoria's Secret. Wright completed his sentence and now edits the paper from the outside, making it easier to challenge the frequent bans of PLN. With 15 years and 18 issues behind it, PLN is the longest running, independent prison newspaper in the country.
Even as prisoners find ways to report, their resources are slim and, in stark contrast to the past, they don't have a large outsider audience; the demand to know what happens inside American prisons is scarce.
This lack of communication might be welcome to some, but it creates further tension between communities that must eventually reunite in the free world. "If you deprive some people of the right to speak freely, who are the real victims of this? Who are the real losers?" Franklin asked. "Not so much the people that don't have the right to speak. The real losers are the people who could potentially hear what these people have to say."
BRISBANE: Journalist and documentary-maker Anne Delaney would probably rather be working on her latest project than sitting in the Inala magistrate's court, facing a possible two year stretch in a Queensland gaol.
The Optional Protocol requires 20 ratifications to enter into force. All States Parties to the UN Convention against Torture should seriously consider ratifying the OPCAT as soon as possible. National Institutions and others promoting the human rights of people deprived of their liberty need to be informed of their potential role as national preventive mechanisms under the OPCAT.
NSW: Justice Action went to the NSW Supreme Court before the last Federal election on the constitutional right for prisoners to receive information for their vote. The government avoided the hearing by bringing prisoners' mobile polling booths forward. We pursued it after the election. This is the report.
On Tuesday the Carr Government reduced transparency and accountability yet again and New South Wales is in danger of becoming entrenched with cronyism and intimidations with the Carr Labor Government that continues to slaughter the watchdogs.
Lockdown Mumia, if the last nameless prostitute becomes an unraveling turban of steam, if the judges' robes become clouds of ink swirling like octopus deception, if the shroud becomes your Amish quilt, if your dreadlocks are snipped during autopsy, then drift above the ruined RCA factory that once birthed radios to the tomb of Walt Whitman, where the granite door is open and fugitive slaves may rest.
Ohio's Abu Ghraib US: Before becoming an Ohio State Penitentiary physician, Dr. Ayham Haddad experienced a different side of incarceration as a political prisoner in Syria. After being arrested, tortured, and released, Haddad immigrated to the United States to begin a new life.
Two Million Imprisoned = Too Many On August 13, thousands of people from around the nation are expected to march in a "Journey for Justice" to our nation's capitol. Times have certainly changed since the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, but this year's march still has everything to do with what many view as institutionalized racism.
Harmful, Undeserved Punishment US: Nearly five million American citizens are denied the right to vote - one of every 50 citizens. That includes 13 percent of all African-American men nationwide, up to almost twice that percentage in particular states and the majority of adults - black and white -- in some inner city neighborhoods.
[PRISONACT] FOR THE MILLIONS WHO CARE! US: Washington: Hello. My name is Kay Lee and among other things, I am currently a coordinator for Prison Reform's first 'Call to Arms': A massive march which is scheduled to take off from Lafayette Park in Washington DC on August 13, 2005.
Association for the Prevention of Torture The Optional Protocol requires 20 ratifications to enter into force. All States Parties to the UN Convention against Torture should seriously consider ratifying the OPCAT as soon as possible. National Institutions and others promoting the human rights of people deprived of their liberty need to be informed of their potential role as national preventive mechanisms under the OPCAT.
US land of the free: 2,131,180 prisoners US: WASHINGTON -- The nation's prisons and jails held 2,131,180 inmates as of June 30, 2004, the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced this week. Two-thirds were in federal and state prisons, and the other third were in local jails. Jail authorities were supervising an additional 70,548 men and women in the community in work release, weekend reporting, electronic monitoring and other alternative programs.
The ABOLITIONIST From the first issue's open letter: "When a prisoner suggested we entitle this quarterly newspaper The Abolitionist, we couldn't help but revel in the titleâs historical significance. The original Abolitionist was a monthly journal of the New England Antislavery Society that agitated for the immediate abolition of slavery back in 1835.
All the World's a Prison: History No doubt many of my readers, even those who are well-educated or widely read, think that the prison -- the place where dark deeds are darkly answered -- is an ancient institution, a barbaric hold-over from barbaric times. In fact, the prison is of relatively recent origin, and this tells us a great deal about the pretentions and realities of modern times, and the wisdom and high degree of development of the ancients.
Unlock the Box: Unlock the Box is a product of many years of struggle to shut down the Security Housing Units in California. During this time, the United Front to Abolish the SHU was created as a forum to coordinate the actions of everyone involved in this campaign.
State of the Prison System US: According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 2.3 million men and women are now behind bars in the United States. Yes, the country that touts itself as the "land of the free" and the champion of freedom around the world incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country.
THE HIDDEN TRUTH ABOUT EXECUTIONS: For death row inmates in Indonesia, execution usually comes on a deserted beach or remote jungle at the hands of a paramilitary firing squad. And, it rarely comes fast.
US incarceration rate climbs The US penal system, the world's largest, maintained its steady growth in 2004, the US Department of Justice reported.The latest official half-yearly figures found the nation's prison and jail population at 2,131,180 in the middle of last year, an increase of 2.3 per cent over 2003.
Three-Strikes law mandatory sentencing US: First of all, this is not about a simple baseball game. This is about the most important thing of all, the game of life. The Three-Strikes law (mandatory sentencing for three felony convictions) came into being through fear, manipulation and, yes, full-blown prejudice.
Most women 'should not be jailed' Women make up 6% of the prison population in England and Wales. Imprisonment of women should be "virtually abolished", a prison reform group has said.
He Did Time, So He's Unfit to Do Hair She has managed to turn life in federal prison into a nifty career move. Her company's stock is soaring, and she has plans for not one but two television shows. It almost makes you wonder why the Enron types are fighting so hard to stay out of jail.
Deaths in isolation as prison segregation increases The use of segregation [solitary confinement] of prisoners as punishment has been increasing recently in Australia, the US, and the UK. Segregation can be used for protection or punishment, but in both cases it results in extreme psychological stress. An indication that segregation is being over-used is the appearance of deaths in custody from suicide of those placed in segregation.
THE POT CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK: US: The American media reports that thousands of Iranians cheered, whistled and clapped as a serial killer was publicly executed in Iran last week.US death row numbers don't change policy? The number of prisoners on death row in the United States appears to be falling, mostly credited to a single Governor who commuted the sentences of all the death row prisoners in his state.
Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates US: The number of inmates in state and federal prisons rose 2.1 percent last year, even as violent crime and property crime fell, according to a study by the Justice Department released yesterday.
DNA Evidence of Bipartisanship Last week the U.S. Congress passed the Justice for All Act, which includes provisions of the Innocence Protection Act. As of this posting, the legislation has not yet been signed by President Bush. Attached is an analysis of the legislation prepared by the Justice Project.
Our Two Priority Bills sent to White House US: The 8th National CURE Convention last June lobbied on Capitol Hill the Innocence Protection Act in the Senate and the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act of 2004 in the House. On Sunday, October 10th, Congress passed both bills and sent them to the President to be signed.
THE LAW IS AN ASS: US: A Californian man who beheaded a german shepherd dog he had named after his girlfriend, has been sentenced to 25 years to life under California's three-strikes law.
BIRTHDAY PROTEST BACKS INNOCENT MAN ON DEATH ROW: Kids from 3 to 83 years old beat candy labeled "Justice" out of a big Texas-shaped piqata on Aug. 1 as dozens gathered in the Houston City Hall Park to celebrate the 30th birthday of Nanon Williams, an innocent person on Texas death row.
Abu Ghraib, USA When I first saw the photo, taken at the Abu Ghraib prison, of a hooded and robed figure strung with electrical wiring, I thought of the Sacramento, California, city jail.
On Solitary Confinement There has been much written about solitary confinement by some of the world's leading psychiatrists, but very little written by victims of solitary themselves. I believe that the 32 years I have spent in solitary qualifies me for the task.
Forensics? In proposing a new death penalty for Massachusetts last month, Governor Mitt Romney offered firm assurance that no innocent people would be executed: Convictions, he said, will be based on science.
The Two Million Signature Campaign We are shooting for over 2,000,000 signatures on the LERA petition! That is one signature for every person incarcerated in the United States!
Maoist Internationalist Movement March 6 -- Protesters took to the streets in cities across the state of California to demand California prisons shut down the Security Housing Units (SHU). Like other control unit prisons across the country, the SHU are prisons within a prison. They are solitary confinement cells where prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day for years at a time. The one hour a day these prisoner sometimes get outside of their cell is spent alone in an exercise pen not much larger than their cell, with no direct sunlight.
Notebook of a Prison Abolitionist In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass recalls how as a slave he would occasionally hear of the "abolitionists." He did not know the full meaning of the word at first, but he heard it used in ways that he found appealing. He heard about it when a slave ran away or killed his master. He heard about it when a barn was set on fire or a slave committed an act his master thought wrong. For Douglass, these utterances and reports were "spoken of as the fruit of abolition." He adds, "Hearing the word in this connection very often, I set about learning what it meant."
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