Censorship on the Prison Plantation: Extinguishing Dissent

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By Robert Saleem Holbrook

“We have as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light may enter the slave’s mind. If we could extinguish the capacity to see the light, our work would be complete: they [enslaved Africans] would then be on a level with the beast of the field and we would be safe.”

~ Henry Brown, Virginia House of Delegates, 1832
[speaking in favor of a law against the education for slaves]

The above words were spoken on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates in 1832 in support of legislation that would make it a crime for anyone to be caught teaching slaves how to read. The legislation was introduced following the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Southhampton, Virginia and was one of the earliest open demonstrations of the state’s fear of slaves using education as a means of liberating themselves from the tyranny of slavery. The impetus for the legislation was the discovery that evidence had surfaced that Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831 and Denmark Vesey’s rebellion in South Carolina in 1822 were inspired after reading about how slaves on the island of Haiti had risen up and seized their freedom and independence in 1804. To try and prevent future rebellions, slavery states in the South enacted laws that sought to prevent slaves from being educated and also embarked on widespread censorship of the press, ensuring that slaves and antislavery advocates were not exposed to inflammatory material that might inspire rebellion on the plantations.
This article draws on the parallel between the suppression of speech and dissent within and against the institution of slavery and modern censorship within the United States Prison Industrial Complex and is based on a radical social/political critique, as well as the legal context these issues are rooted in. My concerns are directed at the censorship of reading material based on its political content (rooted in dissent and rebellion) and not on reading material related to weak-style street or hood novels that reinforce the slave/chump mentality. It is an indisputable fact, according to the United States Constitution, that the only form of slavery legally allowed to exist today in the United States is as punishment for a crime where the party shall have been duly convicted. This language/decree is found in the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction (13th Amendment, Section 1, United States Constitution).

The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, according to Professor Joy James, mandated the transition from chattel slavery to penal (prison) slavery and from personal property (slaves) owned by slave owners to public property owned by the state. The United States prison system possesses a foundation firmly rooted in the philosophical foundation of the institution of chattel slavery in the United States. This foundation was firmly imbedded in a case from 1871, where in response to a petition by a prisoner in Virginia challenging the conditions of his imprisonment, a court of appeals ruled:

A convicted felon, whom the law in its humility punishes by confinement in the penitentiary instead of death, is subject while undergoing that punishment, to all the laws which the Legislature in its wisdom may enact for the government of that institution. For the time being, during his term of service in the penitentiary, he is in a state of penal servitude to the State. He has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State (Ruffin V. The Commonwealth, 1871, Virginia).

In one form or another, throughout the 100 years since its initial ruling, successive courts have upheld the above doctrine. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia referenced the doctrine as recently as 2003, in a case (Overton v. Bazetta) depriving prisoners of visitation rights.

It is also from the basis of this doctrine that prison censorship functions and prison censors operate. It is not material whether prison censors or administrators view prisoners as slaves of the state or not; what is material is that the system they operate in and support functions from the basis that prisoners are slaves of the state. Within the existing social, state and judicial dynamics, the status of “criminal” renders one as such. While the state would prefer the terminology of “ward” or “inmate”, these are just semantic games designed to provide a degree of legitimacy to the fact that the state’s prison system operates on a (neo)plantation model and foundation.

Viewing the prison as a plantation and framing its administrators and prisoners within the slave owner and slave dynamic provides one with a clearer understanding of the role of censorship within the prison environment than one would get if he/she viewed prison as a legitimate institution that served the interests of society. Such faith in the system’s legitimacy further requires a belief that, in the words of Professor Bettina Aptheker, “the dominant theoretical assumption among social and behavioral scientists in the United States today is that the social order is functionally stable and fundamentally just.” Although this is certainly not the case, prison censors nonetheless assume their duties as if this premise were true and accept this theory of the moral depravity of the prisoner without question or reservation. Short of this reasoning, to again quote Professor Aptheker, “there can be no logical explanation for the prisoner’s incarceration. It is precisely this alleged depravity that legitimates custody.” This wholesale demonization of the imprisoned individual provides the ideological context in which prison censors and prison censorship operates. It is also the context in which slave owners viewed their slaves on plantations. In the plantation owner’s eyes, nothing was wrong with the institution of slavery; rather, it was the slave who was depraved and less than human.

The principal occupation of slave owners was to turn a profit and prevent a slave rebellion or revolt. The principal occupation of prison administrators is to preserve order and prevent prisoner rebellion. Prison censorship constitutes one of the first fronts of intervention in performing these functions. Indeed, the very first step is the suppression of Free Speech and the First Amendment. During slavery, free speech and the First Amendment were suppressed to protect the interest of the plantation regime. Southern legislators justified these suppressions on the grounds that if abolitionists’ speech were protected by the First Amendment, then the institution of slavery would be threatened by rebellion. Rebellion, it was understood, originates in the realm of ideas. Today, prison censors use the same justifications when denying political literature to prisoners that criticizes and/or condemns prison conditions, as well as injustice within the prison system. Publications challenging injustice within the prison system are labeled inflammatory or insurrectionist and are accused of advocating criminal activity or guerrilla warfare against the government and/or its institutions.

These justifications are often based on the whit and whim of petty prison mailroom censors whose cultural bias is often responsible for the censorship. The majority of the prisons in Pennsylvania are located in rural, conservative, right wing, white communities while the population of the prisons is predominately made up of prisoners of color from urban communities. Censorship within these prisons is most often based on the censor’s moral presumptions that prisoners possess no values or standards that do not conform to their own racist, white-supremacist, cultural standards. This does not imply that all prison censors or administrators are hood-wearing members of the KKK or that they wake up in the morning and sit around the coffee table scheming on how to oppress prisoners of color. They don’t have to do this, because they mentally operate from an assumption that prisoners are depraved and exist outside society’s norms.

It is in this light that the prison mailroom supervisor at the prison I am incarcerated in (SCI Coal Township) reflexively denies all books by Black/Latino authors that provide a radical critique of prisons, as well as all publications that contain articles written by prisoners that critique prisons from an adversarial position. Every issue of the Human Rights Coalition newsletter “The Movement” has been denied by this institution, as well as informational brochures and flyers related to HRC’s advocacy on behalf of prisoners. It is not the information contained in these newsletters that the prison censor fears, because none of the material is threatening or inflammatory. What angers the censor and the prison administration is that prisoners are taking the initiative to challenge their imprisonment and conditions of confinement without apology! On the pages of these publications, prisoners are demonstrating that they possess a voice and are insuring that their voice be heard.

On slave plantations, slaves were expected to know their place, to work and to keep their mouths shut – to suffer their humiliation in silence. Slaves that refused to accept this station on the plantation were considered to be “out of place”. Their punishment was often to be forcibly silenced, whether through death or branding or having their tongues removed. Within the modern prison plantation, prisoners who dare to offer a radical critique of the Prison Industrial Complex and urge action and rebellion in opposition to its unjust features are also considered “out of place” by prison authorities and are subjected to having their own writings and any literature relevant to their struggle censored by prison authorities. Just as the state representative from Virginia stood within the VA House of Delegates in 1832 arguing in favor of a law and process by which they could extinguish the ability of slaves to even seek the light of knowledge, contemporary prison administrators and their minion censors similarly seek to extinguish the light of dissent and rebellion from entering today’s modern prison plantations.

This ongoing emphasis on suppression provides ample evidence that reading can constitute a political act of insurrection or rebellion when that reading is inspired by a natural desire to be free and confront injustice. Because such reading practices raise awareness and consciousness, they also enable one to identify one’s enemy and develop a fighting stance against it. This is what makes radical critiques of the Prison Industrial Complex dangerous to prison administrators and censors. These critiques constitute the first step toward direct action and allow the seeds of change to flourish in the minds of the state’s captives, just as reading and education allowed the seeds of rebellion to flourish in the minds of slaves on plantations.

The revolutionary prisoner Comrade George Jackson wrote that “As a slave, the social phenomenon that engages my whole consciousness is, of course, revolution.” Comrade George Jackson wrote those words not to identify himself as a slave but rather in recognition of the fact that within the modern prison plantations of the Prison Industrial Complex, prisoners are assigned the role of slaves. His response to this social displacement of his personality and identity by the state was to become a rebel on the prison plantation and to dedicate his life to confronting oppression and regaining freedom for himself and his comrades.

If prison administrators and censors had their way, they would erase Comrade George Jackson’s legacy from the pages of history; however, they have not had their way because he set a standard of excellence that prisoners continue to aspire to. Yet, aspiration is not enough. Conscious prisoners within the modern plantations of the Prison Industrial Complex have to circumvent the Department of Corrections’ censorship by actively writing their own pages in the history of resistance to state-sponsored repression and mass imprisonment. They must become “maroons” on the plantation, creating their own spaces of intellectual “liberated territory” as preparatory stations for real liberation. Unless you free your mind from the mental shackles of the criminal mentality and deranged value system that the PIC propagates, you’ll never be free. If the prison gates were to magically open and you were to make your way out, you’d nonetheless eventually make your way back in because you would have taken the system’s values with you.

Do not allow the PIC to define you by defining your education and limiting or restricting your access to reading material that is critical to your redemption and liberation. Challenge the censorship of “radical” reading material or material that criticizes the Department of Corrections. Don’t limit yourself to the procedures imposed by the DOC for challenging their censorship. Have people and authors on the outside write the DOC challenging the banning of certain books. Reach out to community activists and college professors or people from the education community and request that they review the denied publications and send letters to the DOC challenging the labeling of the publications as inflammatory or promoting criminal activity. If you are able, bring the matter of the DOC’s censorship to the authors of these books and request that they send protest letters to the DOC.

The key is to continue chipping away at the mental and physical shackles and barriers that bind us to the modern day prison plantations and to discover and seize our freedom, just as our ancestors did when they decided to break from the plantations. The first step in becoming free begins when the rebel decides it is time to break with the past and start a new chapter in his/her life.

Robert Saleem Holbrook #BL5140
SCI Coal Township
1 Kelley Drive
Coal Township, PA 17866

October 30, 2012