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Facing Backlash, Pennsylvania Prison Officials Change Reason For Rejecting Newspaper Against White Supremacy

Pennsylvania prison officials claim they rejected an issue of Workers World Newspaper from reaching incarcerated subscribers on the grounds that it contained literal calls to violence in opposition to white supremacy.

The department originally blocked the issue because it included “articles that call for people to join the fight against white supremacy.” However, after inquiries from Shadowproof and public outcry on social media, officials appear to have changed their position. They now describe their own rejection letter as “grossly inaccurate.”

That letter, which was sent to Workers World’s New York office on September 11, 2017, stated Volume 59 #35 [PDF] was “denied to all inmates housed in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.” It did not specify which policies were violated, nor did it outline which articles violated them. It only referenced “information” printed on three pages, which featured articles about anti-racist actions that took place in North Carolina during the month of August.

Workers World submitted an appeal and officials said they are reviewing the decision.

“This is the second time we’ve had to file an appeal,” said Betsy Piette, the newspaper’s contributing editor. “There were similar censorship efforts in February and again in April this year,” when the department rejected issues for covering global demonstrations planned for May Day.

Joseph Piette, a writer and photographer for Workers World, called the claims made in the original letter an “overly broad reason to deny 300 prisoners their First Amendment rights.”

“Every newspaper in the country has carried articles over the last few months mentioning the growing fight against white supremacy,” he said. “Workers World has as much right to be read by prisoners as any other newspaper or magazine.”

“This is the fourth issue so far in 2017 that has been rejected by the DOC. We again challenge their actions, not just in a letter to the DOC but this time by sharing their letter widely in social media, where the public at large can view the white supremacist attitudes of the prison administration firsthand.”

“Our loved ones behind bars are of course subjected to those racist attitudes and actions every day,” he said.

Department Claims Rejection Letter Was “Grossly Inaccurate”

At first, Press Secretary Amy Worden denied that the issue was withheld from all subscribers in the state as the letter claimed. Instead, she said it was withheld from only one person at one facility.

This was disputed by Joseph Piette. He pointed out the wording was identical to past rejection letters that prevented all subscribers from receiving the paper.

“Are they saying they lied in their own letter?,” he said.

Worden then directed this reporter to the department’s media policy, as well as the statement that was posted to Facebook on September 25 (emphasis added):

The Department of Corrections policy (DC-ADM 803, “Inmate Mail and Incoming Publications,” Section E) provides for a detailed review process for incoming publications. Every institution has a publications review committee that examines publications requested by inmates to determine whether they violate DOC policies regarding sexually explicit content, creating danger in an institution, facilitating an escape or advocating violence.

There also is a section in the policy prohibiting racially inflammatory material “that encourages or promotes the belief that one group of persons is superior over another, that could cause a threat to the inmates, staff or the security of a facility.”

The Department of Corrections does not tolerate racism in any form and supports policies of equality and inclusion inside and outside its institutions.

Workers World is not a publication banned by the DOC. (The publication denial list is posted on the DOC website…/Pag…/Publication-Denial-Listing.aspx). In this case there was an issue with a specific issue of the publication that led to its denial by the institution.

It also should be noted that the Workers World publisher was notified and may appeal the DOC’s denial to provide the newspaper to the specific inmate.

Shadowproof asked the department to clarify how such policies were relevant and which specific passages violated them.

“Is the position that ‘articles that call for people to join the fight against white supremacy’ are, themselves, ‘encouraging or promoting the belief that one group of persons is superior over another?'” this reporter asked. “Is such content racially inflammatory in your view?”

Diana Woodside, director of policy, grants, and legislative affairs, replied and described the department’s reasoning as “grossly inaccurate.”

“The Department of Corrections does NOT tolerate racism in any form and supports policies of equality,” Woodside repeated. “The denial was based on language in an article about White Supremacy that was interpreted as a literal call to violence rather than an ideological statement.”

“We will review the entire issue and make a determination whether the denial should be overturned to the inmate to whom it was denied. Again, the reason had nothing to do with white supremacy other than what was interpreted as a call for a violent act.”

Shadowproof asked the department to specify which passages on pages 2, 7, and 11 triggered the rejection. Woodside only identified a small section in the corner of page 7, where a list of demands was published. It read, “Abolish the police, prisons, ICE and the Pentagon! Tear down all institutions of white supremacy! Black Lives Matter!”

Woodside did not provide any information on why pages 2 and 11 were referenced by the letter, adding that “no final decision has been made.”

Piette reacted to this exchange, asking, “Their own letter was ‘grossly inaccurate?’ Did they even read their own letter?”

“There was no ‘literal call to violence,'” he argued. “On the contrary, white supremacy is violence used every day against black and brown people.”

“Taking down a statue to white supremacy is not violence,” he said. “No one got hurt from that. On the contrary, Heather Heyer was killed days earlier by a right wing American Vanguard member. Hundreds of black and brown people are killed by cops every year.”

While their appeal is pending, Workers World urges the public to write to the DOC, demanding they “cease this unconstitutional practice for future issues.” They also ask for each prisoner to be given back any copies that were denied.

“To make each prisoner whole, each inmate whose constitutional rights were denied should receive $50 for each issue they were deprived of [reading].”

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.