Silence is the subtlest penalty of imprisonment. Like most people on the outside, we did not realize how hard it was to get in touch with prisoners until we tried to write to some of them. We sent personal letters to more than 300 inmates in institutions all over the country, inviting them to contribute to this article. Nearly half our letters were returned, some accompanied by tortuously worded forms from prison officials expressing logic that could have come from Kafka. The Federal Correctional Institution — as it is called — at Danbury, Connecticut, advised that “the reason your letter was opened was due to the fact that you failed to place your name and return address on the envelope in which your letter was contained.” The return address was in fact printed on the envelope.
Most prisoners are limited to a list of “approved correspondents” with whom they can exchange letters. Almost always this list is restricted to family, friends, attorneys, and officials of the prison system. If a prisoner lists, say, the editor of the New York Times, the news director of WKCR radio, the US ambassador from Equador or the Pope, prison officials can simply say no.
Regulations vary widely from state to state, but most have in common that they are couched in humanitarian terms while equipped with an escape clause vague enough to allow prison officals to restrict correspondents virtually at will. In federal prisons, inmates are allowed to write to people outside their immediate family only if “it appears that such correspondence will not adversely affect the inmate’s chances of rehabilitation or that it will not be detrimental to the well-being of the inmate or his correspondent,” whatever that means. New Mexico allows acquaintances on the list if “a bona fide friendship exists and the correspondence is for a legitimate purpose.” Censorship of the mail typically is justified on principles equally vague. Texas regulations require that “inmates shall limit their letters to matters of personal interest to friends and relatives.” In New York, a prisoner’s letter can be handed back to him if, as the rule puts it, “You did not stick to your subject.”
When it comes to the press, prison authorities draft rules like men bailing out a sinking ship. Many states — as large as New York and as small as Vermont — simply prohibit inmates from communicating with news media. If a prisoner leaks information to a newspaper without permission he can be punished, whether the information was true or not. Other more “liberal” states allow letters to newspapers and magazines, but censor them. Pennsylvania prison authorities are not permitted to censor inmates’ personal mail (except on a spot check basis), but when it comes to the media, letters “shall be censored” if they are “clearly misleading” or perhaps just “potentially misleading” in the opinion of the authorities.
Recently, journalists in several states have filed suits which may force the US Bureau of Prisons to liberalize its regulations about correspondence and visits with journalists. The Department of Justice is working on new rules, and if they prove sufficient to evade the suit many states may follow their example.
Many prisons censor publications with as free a hand as they restrict correspondence. Oregon bans “publications which excite, encourage and/or promote violence or disorder,” a provision which sounds reasonable enough but which in practice can be used to stop anything from a daily paper on up. In Hawaii, prisoners may not be exposed to “comics, risque magazines or pocketbooks of a derogatory nature.” The man in charge of mail at Wyoming State Penitentiary refused to allow an inmate to receive Rolling Stone or the Whole Earth Catalog because, he said, “You’re here for rehabilitation, not to read about hippies.”
Books prohibited in New York state prisons include the I Ching, Martin Sostre’s Letters From Prison, and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
The cases which appear here were assembled over a period of three months primarily through the help of the prisoners themselves. Our purpose is to allow them to communicate. They are in no way meant to represent all prisoners; each case is different, and we heard from no one who claimed to speak for anyone but himself.
The very nature of prison regulations distorts the sample. A disproportionate number of the prisoners we heard from were white, middle-class men in medium or minimum-security institutions, where mail regulations are more liberal. Most of them are accustomed to writing letters and are well aware that prison conditions for them are not what they are for some others. For, say, a black man educated in ghetto schools and county jails and now locked in solitary in some federal prison, the obstacles to communication with anyone outside can be almost insurmountable. In a sense, then, these cases represent the luckier recipients of political justice in America.
Few women are represented, partly because of the law’s strange courtliness toward them (prosecutors and judges often let women dope offenders go and jail their men), partly because the draft laws do not address themselves to women, and partly because this society imposes stronger moral sanctions against women in prison than against men, so that each is more likely to feel ashamed.
Nor can we hear from the dead: Anthony Jones, 19 years old, an asthmatic who died after being forcibly administered four heavy doses of Thorazine in a so-called School for Boys in Illinois. Philip Lassiter, a victim of sickle cell anemia at a Virginia prison farm, who screamed in his cell day and night for almost a week before he died. Willie Stewart, a frail 17-year-old boy who succumbed under the harassment of guards before he could complete a one-day sentence at Cummins Prison Farm outside Little Rock, Arkansas. Lloyd Lott, 20 years old, who did time at Parchman Prison in Mississippi, was released, and shot himself when it appeared he would be sent back again.
Who is a political prisoner? For the purpose of this article we have included not only prisoners whose alleged crimes were political in nature but prisoners whose due process was, at some point, warped because of their social or political background. On this matter, Angela Davis, destined to be one of America’s most celebrated political prisoners, says the following in her recent book.
If They Come in the Morning:
In this country. . .where the special category of political prisoners is not officially acknowledged, the political prisoner inevitably stand trial for a specific criminal offense, not for a political act. Often the so-called crime does not even have a nominal existence. As in the 1914 murder frame-up of the IWW organizer, Joe Hill, it is a blatant fabrication, a mere excuse for silencing a militant crusader against oppression. In all instances however, the political prisoner has violated the unwritten law which prohibits disturbances and upheavals in the status quo of exploitation and racism. This unwritten law has been contested by actually and explicitly breaking a law or by utilizing constitutionally protected channels to educate, agitate and organize the masses to resist.
A deep-seated ambivalence has always characterized the official response to the political prisoner. Charged and tried for a criminal act, his guilt is always political in nature. This ambivalence is perhaps best captured by Judge Webster Thayer’s comment upon sentencing Bartholomew Vanzetti to 15 years for an attempted payroll robbery: “This man, although he may not have actually committed the crime attributed to him, is nevertheless morally culpable, because he is the enemy of our existing institutions.”