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Inmate lawsuit claims Pa prison used censorship to violate civil rights

Lawsuit filled to gain access to publications DOC calls potential security threat
Lawsuit filled to gain access to publications DOC calls potential security threat
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In an editorial that appeared in Penn Live on June 19, interested parties alleged that the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections violated Robert Saleem Holbrook's civil rights through the First Amendment by censoring his incoming mail. Holbrook, who is serving a life sentence without parole, claimed that prior to being transferred from SCI Greene to the state prison in Coal Township that he regularly received publications from the Human Rights Coalition's Philadelphia chapter. Not only did Holbrook allege in his complaint that prison officials restrict his access to The Movement and other news about human rights violations, but he said that he was unfairly denied materials sent from a college professor who wanted to collaborate with him on a presentation about the Black Power Movement. According to the lawsuit filled in January, the plaintiffs seek a trial by jury and an injunction that would cease interference with Holbrook's mail. In addition, there was a request for reimbursement of attorney costs and fees along with unnamed compensatory and punitive damages.

It is not uncommon for inmates to file grievances and lawsuits claiming they were burdened with injustices at the hands of correctional staff. Some of these allegations opened up the floodgates for civil rights complaints that led to institutional changes that were long overdue especially in regards to abuse and mistreatment. Then there are other complaints filled by disgruntled inmates who have nothing else to do but to file grievances for the least slight. Holbrook may fall into a different category where the complaint is motivated by political and social reasons. Convicted of his crime at age 16, Holbrook believes that sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole is a cruel and unusual punishment and also human rights violation. Writing editorials to newspapers and featured in other publications by organizations that are opposed to these juvenile sentences, it is understandable that Holbrook would want to receive any and all printed articles he wrote and that were written about his sentence and conviction.

Just the same, it is also reasonable to expect that the prison may have some policies about inmate mail and incoming publications. In this situation, Holbrook was denied access to certain mailings because the prison deemed them to be a potential threat to security to incite violence and insurrection against the government. To advocate against what the editorial referred to as the "agency's war on learning", the Abolitionist Law Center and Books Through Bars see Holbrook's situation as an example of a bigger problem involving censorship. Books Through Bars alleged that the 110 inmates who registered for a correspondence course Address This! are blocked from receiving the educational materials by the Department of Corrections for security issues. Basically, the materials were banned for some of the same reasons stated in Holbrook's case. However, the editorial professed victory over oppression as inmates filled grievances and appealed the denials. It is unknown how that situation will impact Holbrook's lawsuit as it could make a difference in the outcome or have no effect.

Known for defending civil rights and civil liberties, the ACLU acknowledged that while restricting prisoners access to publications cannot be arbitrary and policies must be related to institutional security, the reality of the situation is that the often defer to the judgment of correctional authorities to define if the censorship is reasonable. If Holbrook's case goes to a jury trial, the publications that the prison says have language and content that advocate violence, guerrilla warfare against the government, or are a danger to the correctional facility will come under scrutiny and review. Holbrook, who refers to himself as a politicized prisoner and advocates for his liberation from prison, admits to being a contributing writer for some of these publications but denies that the words are a threat to institutional security. If the publications he seeks to receive by mail are anything like what he writes on Free Salim about censorship and comparing the prison system to slavery on a plantation, he may have a hard time convincing a jury and anyone else that radical liberation is incumbent upon access to those publications.