By continuously impounding issues of the socialist newsweekly the Militant, Florida Department of Corrections officials are routinely violating their own guidelines, and the protections of the Bill of Rights for prisoners to read books and periodicals. The most recent impoundment was the Sept. 17 issue, which the Militant is challenging, as it has all the others.
Florida prison regulations list 12 reasons wardens can use to bar a publication, and a 13th catchall that says, if “it otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person.”
The Sept. 17 issue contained two articles — “California Protest Demands ‘End Solitary Confinement!’” and “Free Ukraine Director on Hunger Strike from Siberian Jail!” — which officials at the Florida State Prison said ran afoul of two of the 12, and the catchall. They claim that one or both of the articles “depicts, describes or encourages activities which may lead to the use of physical violence or group disruption” or “is dangerously inflammatory in that it advocates or encourages riot, insurrection, disruption of the institution, violation of department or institution rules.”
Of the 18 known impoundments of issues of the Militant over the last two years, all but five have been overturned by the prison system’s Literature Review Committee. But the committee has never offered any explanation of why it upheld any of those bans.
One Florida prisoner wrote in 2017 in a successful grievance to overturn the ban on an issue of the paper that “to deny me this Militant publication is similar to dictating to us what we should read and believe.”
A prisoner in Illinois wrote to the Florida Literature Review Committee Sept. 12 protesting another ban this year. Florida prison officials should “set a proper example for those in its custody,” he wrote. “Unfortunately it appears that you are not adhering to the same standard that you wish prisoners to follow.”
Prison officials do take note of letters protesting their censorship. Dean Peterson, head of the Literature Review Committee, wrote back to Kim O’Brien, a Militant subscriber in Boston, saying they have overturned the bulk of the impoundments after appeal by the paper. But, he argued, decisions on impounding the Militant “must be made on an issue by issue basis,” and “it is not possible for any one individual to hand down an edict exempting the Militant from impoundment and review any more than it is possible for one individual to arbitrarily decide which publications are allowed into our institutions and which are not.”
“After the Attica rebellion in 1971 put a spotlight on the conditions workers faced behind bars there,” Militant editor John Studer said, “the New York State Department of Corrections changed their guidelines to name the Militant as one of the publications that ‘shall generally be approved.’”
“The Florida Department of Corrections should instruct wardens and local prison officials to cease arbitrarily and capriciously impounding the paper,” Studer said. “The fact that they have overturned the overwhelming majority of the impoundments is proof that those issues shouldn’t have been impounded in the first place.”
Prison authorities in other states are also looking for ways to restrict the access of workers behind bars to literature and mail. Pennsylvania just implemented new rules blocking prisoners from ordering books and periodicals directly from publishers or distributors.
“We ask readers of the Militant to join the fight against censorship,” said Studer. “Get your local union officials to send a letter. Talk to your church group. Get co-workers to write.”
Send letters to Dean Peterson, Library Services Administrator, Florida Department of Corrections, Att: Literature Review Committee, 501 South Calhoun Street, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2500, via email to Allen.Peterson@fdc.myflorida.com, or via fax at (850) 922-2121. Please send a copy and a contribution to continue this battle to the Militant.