The Department of Corrections is Waging a War on Learning

The Dept. of Corrections is waging a war on learning

(The following op-ed was published in the Harrisburg Patriot newspaper on Thursday, June 19, co-authored by Emily Abendroth of Address This!, ALC client Robert Saleem Holbrook, and ALC legal director Bret Grote) – original link here

Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed 2014-2015 budget will give the Department of Corrections a $78 million increase over current spending.

If Corbett’s budget is approved, for the first time in history, the Commonwealth will spend more than $2 billion on prisons. And yet, less than $40 million, or about 2 percent, of the agency’s budget will go to “Inmate Education and Training”.

The focus of the criminal justice system solely on retributive punishment as opposed to rehabilitation, programming, or the assessment of systemic root causes has been a sweeping failure nationwide.

The recidivism rate in the Commonwealth is abysmal–within three years of being released from a Pennsylvania prison, 60 percent of people are rearrested or reincarcerated.

And while there are many factors that contribute to how and why people return to prison (including little to no access to re-entry services, employment, housing, or support), access to meaningful educational programming while in prison has consistently been shown to have a positive impact on reducing those numbers.

Two years ago, Books Through Bars, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that has sent free books to incarcerated individuals since 1990, started a correspondence course program for prisoners called Address This!.

Since its inception, the Corrections Department has blocked Address This! course readers from entering Pennsylvania prisons every semester of the program, often keeping them out of the hands of those who are most isolated–prisoners in solitary confinement and prisoners in maximum security facilities.

In the Spring of 2014, Address This! teamed up with the Abolitionist Law Center to document the censorship of these educational materials and to prepare for a possible advocacy campaign against the agency’s war on learning. This current semester, which started in March 2014, had 110 registrants in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

Mailrooms at three prisons failed to deliver a single course reader to prisoners at their institutions. Overall, 44 prisoners, or 40 percent of registrants, encountered censorship problems.

Given the Corrections Department’s failure, in numerous cases, to provide the proper notification paperwork to the sender which their own policies require, documenting this censorship would not have been possible if students in these courses had not mailed Address This! copies of the denials they received and copies of the grievances they filed.

For many of the undelivered course readers, the DOC did not even give reasons for the denial. When they bothered justifying the denials, the purported reasons ranged from the vague “unauthorized books” to the unsubstantiated “no photocopied books.”

Surely the state can choose to put more of its budget into educating the 51,000-plus people that they do incarcerate.

Some readers were also denied for content-based reasons, allegations that they contained: “racially inflammatory language”, “writings which advocate violence, insurrection, or guerrilla warfare against the government”, or “instruction regarding the ingredients or manufacture of poisons, drugs, or intoxicating beverages”.

These course readers and courses focus on eliminating racism and violence in our communities and on building self-empowerment.

Each of the six classes that are currently offered is intended to foster dialogue, promote collective critical thinking and reading skills, raise awareness, and provide an outlet for stimulating discussion on issues of importance to all of our lives.

In the end, not even the department’s Legal Counsel could back up the mailrooms’ frivolous claims, and the department’s Central Office sent memos to all 26 Pennsylvania state prisons communicating that these course readers could not be denied on the basis of being photocopied material, and that the two readers that had been denied for content-based reasons were now on the Corrections Department’s list of approved books.

This would not have been possible if imprisoned students in Address This! courses had not submitted grievances and appealed the denials they received. It would not have been possible if people in places where hope is attacked and battered did not still somehow have hope.

To be clear, this victory does not allow the prisoners who were denied readers this semester to suddenly participate in the courses.

The semester has continued and these students are too behind in the coursework to jump into these classes now. Nor does this victory ensure that Address This! will not encounter problems with censorship in the future.

Finally, and most importantly, this victory does little to address the inherent brutality of putting people in cages while refusing to address the root causes of crime–systemic social, educational, and economic inequality.

The Pennsylvania Legislature will have to approve a budget in the coming weeks. They can decide to continue increasing the Corrections Department’s budget, which yields high recidivism rates and perpetuates cycles of crime and mass incarceration, or they can vote for something new.

The Corrections Department has claimed they cannot decrease the number of people in Pennsylvania’s prisons or stop construction on new prisons. We adamantly dispute this claim.

But surely the department can choose to put more of its budget into educating the 51,000-plus people that they do incarcerate. And the agency can stop the unjust practice of censoring prisoners’ communications with the outside world.

Bret Grote is with the Abolitionist Law Center in Pittsburgh. Emily Abendorth is a teacher and co-founer of Address This! And Robert Saleem Holbrook is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution at Coal Township.

Court Rules Human Rights Coalition’s Censorship Suit Can Go Forward


Federal Court Denies Motion to Dismiss and Grants Motion to Amend Complaint in Human Rights Coalition’s Censorship Lawsuit

A challenge to prison censorship of political and human rights literature in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) has seen two favorable developments in the past month.

On Thursday, May 15, United States Federal District court ruled that a lawsuit challenging censorship of political literature in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections will go forward. The court denied the defense’s request to dismiss some of the censorship claims and all of the supervisory officials named as defendants.

On June 13, the court granted plaintiffs’ motion to amend and supplement the original complaint, adding new claims for relief and one new defendant: DOC Secretary John Wetzel. The new complaint adds due process challenges claiming that prison officials failed to provide non-prisoners with notice and an opportunity to challenge when prison staff censor their mail. Additional claims challenge the criteria used by the DOC to justify censorship as being impermissibly vague, permitting prison staff to impose arbitrary standards when making censorship decisions.

Plaintiffs are seeking monetary and injunctive relief.

The lawsuit, Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al., was filed in January on behalf of the Human Rights Coalition (HRC), prisoner Robert Saleem Holbrook, and College of Charleston Professor Kristi Brian against several employees of the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Coal Township and the DOC for confiscation of mail sent to Holbrook, a co-founder of HRC who is currently held at SCI Coal Township.

The suit details a series of confiscations of Holbrook’s mail since January 2012 that includes academic correspondence with a college professor, scholarly essays from the anthology If They Come in the Morning, a Black history book, and a newsletter published by HRC, The Movement, which focuses on prison abuse, solitary confinement, and ways that prisoners’ family members can come together to challenge human rights abuses and injustice in the criminal legal system.

Plaintiffs are represented in the case by the Abolitionist Law Center, and David Shapiro, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law at the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law.


Amended Complaint – Holbrook et al. v. Jellen et al.