Even prisoners deserve right to free speech 

Prison is hardly supposed to be pleasant. Inmates are deprived of their freedom because they did terrible things. James Crawford, for example, was convicted of robbery and auto theft, and is reportedly a member of the Black Guerrilla Family, a notorious and violent prison gang.

That’s why Mr. Crawford has been incarcerated in Pelican Bay, the toughest and most secure prison facility in California.

But even the most dangerous inmates deserve certain rights. One of these is the right to communicate with the outside world. Two years ago, officials with the Department of Corrections tried to deny him that right. They were wrong to try, and state appellate Justice James Lambden was right last week when he ordered prison officials to lift what amounted to an arbitrary gag order.

In April 2010, Crawford wrote a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper in which he addressed a recent article about political prisoners in the United States.

Crawford claimed the newspaper seriously undercounted the number of political prisoners, and that inmates such as himself were being held in solitary confinement because of their “political beliefs in a New Afrikan Nationalist Revolutionary Man.”

Prison officials opened and read the letter, as is customary. But this reference to a “New Afrikan,” they decided, was part of a sophisticated code to promote the Black Guerrilla Family’s criminal agenda out on the mean streets of California. They refused to allow Crawford to mail it.

Crawford sued, with the help of attorney Donald Spector. He and Spector produced James Campbell, a Stanford historian who testified that the phrase “New Afrikan” has a long legacy in the history of black nationalism and is hardly unique to the Black Guerrilla Family.

As for the Pelican Bay officials, they never bothered to elaborate on what sort of code Crawford was allegedly using. They simply said so, denied his rights and went to court.

On June 4, Lambden wrote for a unanimous three-person appellate court committee when he declared that Pelican Bay officials had gratuitously denied Crawford’s fundamental right to communicate with others and didn’t even bother to explain why. Crawford’s rights, he concluded, “cannot be taken away by a government agency simply speculating.”

As a result, Crawford’s letter will now be sent to the Bay View — two years later. That prison officials can simply refuse to allow something as basic as the right to communicate with the outside world, and force inmates to spend two years in court, is more than a little galling.

But at least the 1st District Court of Appeal has ruled against them and stood up for the First Amendment.

California’s prisons have been plagued by numerous scandals, from allegations of brutality to widespread failures in medical care for inmates. Inmates must be allowed to speak to the rest of us, and not have their rights be subject to the whims of prison censors.

Otherwise, we may never learn what next scandal is brewing inside the system. We hope that Pelican Bay officials learn from this case and never try to suppress the rights of inmates again.

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