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Pennsylvania Prison Officials Censored Workers World Publication For May Day Coverage

The Pennsylvania Department of Correction has rejected multiple issues of Workers World sent to incarcerated subscribers because of passages advocating for global May Day labor strikes and solidarity among oppressed people. The ban affected approximately 100 subscribers to the newspaper in Pennsylvania prisons.

Government officials sent four rejection letters to Workers World, which is the official publication of the Workers World Party. The officials notified the publisher that specific issues would be censored for all incarcerated subscribers.

The articles at issue generally called for action on May 1, International Workers Day. They demand opposition to President Donald Trump and “all he stands for,” asking readers to side with marginalized people who have been targeted by the administration. However, the articles made almost no mention of prisons and nowhere in the pages did Workers World advocate for labor strikes by the incarcerated.

Sehu Kessa Saa Tabansi is one of Workers World’s subscribers and a contributor to the paper, who is incarcerated in Pennsylvania. He was not aware the prison censored his mail until a staff member from Workers World informed him of the rejection letters they received.

Pennsylvania Department of Correction policy states incarcerated people are to be notified within two working days of a decision to deny a publication, but Sehu said he was never notified. He filed a grievance on March 10, writing, “Was just informed by e-mail from outside prison that PA DOC returned Workers World Newspaper Volume 59 #7 pages 1 and 10. Was said because it advocates global strikes for May Day around the world, the PA DOC banned it.”

“I was not notified by PA DOC nor [illegible]. I was not given opportunity to appeal ban. I am emailed the issue was dated 2/16/17. I am grieving mailroom staff superintendent and secretary of PA DOC. This is a systemic problem of censorship,” Sehu added.

Prison officials, who apparently forgot they had already notified Workers World of the censorship, responded to Sehu by essentially arguing the Workers World issue must have been lost in the mail or never arrived at the facility. If they received it and withheld it, they would have sent him a notification per department policy.

“If this publication in fact came in for [Sehu] he would have received a copy of the ‘notice of incoming publication denial.’ It would have been held pending appeal and not just returned,” prison officials wrote. “The fact that he did not receive this notification indicates that the publication was never received here for him. The state-wide list for banned publications was reviewed, and there is nothing on the ban list with that title or volume.”

“To conclude, no publication with this title was received for [Sehu] or he would have been notified if it was on a current denial list, or if it wasn’t banned but had questionable material in it, he would have been notified that it was held for IPRC review, which he was not.”

“Based on this information and a lack of evidence by [Sehu] to substantiate his claim, this grievance is denied and deemed frivolous because it lacks any arguable basis in law, fact or policy. Requested relief is unwarranted,” the prison stated.

By arguing that Sehu needed an official notification to prove the censorship had taken place in order to challenge the censorship, prison administrators effectively rendered the due process rights of subscribers obsolete.

Officials censored three more issues of Workers World on similar grounds in the coming weeks. As far as Workers World is aware, none of the subscribers were notified.

“I understand that prisons have broad powers to restrict literature that would endanger prison ‘security.’ I don’t think there’s any use in arguing that advocating a global May Day strike would not endanger ‘security.’ However, there seems to be a free speech and due process issue involved here,” Mattie Boyd of the Philadelphia Workers World Party branch said in a statement.

“Sehu, and likely around 100 other inmates if the censorship has been applied equally, have been prevented from appealing the censorship decision to a prison administrator not involved in the original decision to censor the material. At least in Sehu’s case, any official notice from the prison to the subscriber was withheld.”

“In short, the PA DOC has violated inmates’ constitutional rights in order to prevent them from receiving news about an anti-Trump protest.”

PA DOC Rejects “Advocating For Solidarity”

In a February 22 letter to Workers World, Pennsylvania prison officials said they censored Workers World Vol. 59 #7 for all incarcerated subscribers because “information obtained on pages 1 and 10 advocates global May Day strike.” They argued the passages created a danger; advocated, assisted, or are evidence of criminal activity; and were racially inflammatory or material that could cause a threat to security.

The May Day article of concern calls for a general strike to “raise all the demands of the movements of the workers and oppressed against all the mounting attacks of capitalism,” including union busting and a global minimum wage. It demands the strike focus its energy “against all that Trump has come to represent— racism, white supremacy, neo-fascism, Islamophobia, attacks on immigrants, attacks on women and LGBTQ people, and a drive toward imperialist war.”

It does not make any explicit mention of incarceration, prison labor, or the labor strikes initiated by incarcerated people across the United States last year.

Prison officials repeated these charges in a letter to Workers World rejecting another issue on March 31 because issue #12 “advocates work strike.” This time, prison officials appear to have based their rejection on a short fundraising plea on page 10, which mentions Workers World’s support for the May Day strikes.

Once again, there are no references specifically to prison labor and incarceration, however, issue 12 does include a piece by Sehu discussing the firing of a legal aid prisoner at State Correctional Institution Houtzdale, Mr. Jules Jetté. Sehu describes Jetté as a “middle-aged French-Canadian man who has dedicated his legal knowledge to explaining the law’s complex intricacies to a large variety of prisoners, including the illiterate, mentally challenged, emotionally disturbed, juveniles, elderly, handicapped and many more.”

“Mr. Jetté has not had any misconduct reports as a prisoner his entire time here, no exaggeration,” Sehu wrote. “He does not even have any negative block card (housing unit) reports at all, which is something very hard to do under imprisonment for any length of time.”

“Sadly, the Department of Corrections does not care about the work Mr. Jetté does. Quite a few prisoners that benefit from Mr. Jetté’s self-taught legal knowledge have attested to his good character and effective service. However, SCI Houtzdale’s security office has taken notice of prisoners’ improved success rate in court with Mr. Jetté’s help, and are now retaliating against him and those of us who support him.”

On April 5, prison officials told Workers World they rejected issue #13 on the same grounds as the other issues.

Officials pointed to an article that discussed standing in solidarity with immigrants and migrant workers, who have endured the mounting terror of raids, detention, and deportation under the Trump and Obama administrations. It described the climate of violence, fear, and poverty forced upon immigrants and called out President Donald Trump’s actions as racist, hateful, and anti-worker.

The piece briefly touched on how private prison companies have benefited from the immigration crisis and plan to expand their business under Trump. It drew attention to the April 29 Climate March in Washington, D.C. and urged people not to shop, go to school, or work on May Day. But like all other issues rejected by prison officials, it did not explicitly advocate for a work strike or resistance among incarcerated people.

On April 20, prison officials wrote to Workers World to reject issue #15 because “information contained on page 10 advocates standing in solidarity.” They did not specify for what the article “advocates standing in solidarity,” but they appeared to refer to a brief list, which included, “Stand in solidarity against all forms of repression and exploitation,” as representative of what people would do when they took action on May Day.

Workers World challenged the censorship decision for issue #13 and the organization plans to challenge the more recent “standing in solidarity” denial from issue #15.
In their appeal, Boyd pointed out none of the issues rejected by DOC called for a strike by incarcerated people, but instead described “the broad movement by immigrants, low wage workers, unions, and other people in the U.S. and other countries for May 1st.”

“It is absurd and insulting to think that prisoners in Pennsylvania would strike merely because one newspaper suggested the idea. The reason for denial is false, unwarranted, unjustified and spiteful. It is a crass attempt by the DOC to suppress all dissent and resistance, including legal, First Amendment protected speech.”

Workers World requested prison officials review the decision to withhold censorship notifications from incarcerated subscribers in violation of the law and their constitutional rights. They also demanded that the prison respect the law, constitutional rights, and prison policy to ensure all Workers World subscribers receive censorship notification and the chance to exercise their due process rights to appeal.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.