PLN editor comments on efforts to shut down prisoners' blogs
YOUR PRISON BLOG IS LEGAL, BUT IT WILL LAND YOU IN THE HOLE
Since 1999, Ferranti had been contributing articles to urban lifestyle magazineDon Diva and VICE. His stories, among other things, criticized the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) outright and covered prison gang culture, drug smuggling, and other goings-on in whatever compound he was in—information that the BOP didn't necessarily want on the outside. Ferranti was well aware that the First Amendment, which has regularly been evoked by the Supreme Court to protect the speech and press rights of prisoners, would not protect him from reprisal on the inside.
“They used to put me in the hole for my writing, and they might keep me in there for 30 to 60 days,” says Ferranti, who was sentenced to 25 years at the age of 22 for selling LSD. “They would never say it’s for my writing,” Ferranti explains. “Officially they’d say, you’re under investigation for this or under investigation for that—under investigation for stuff I’m not even doing. But everybody knows it’s for my writing.”
Solitary confinement, or “the hole,” was a frequent predicament for Ferranti during his two-decade-plus stint behind bars.
Ferranti was also shipped to a higher security prison as explicit punishment for “A White Boyz Tale.” Published very close to the 9/11 attacks, this hyperbolic fantasy piece doles out death sentences to all the wardens, cops, and politicians complicit in the “ruinous war on drugs.”
The unit team informed Ferranti that “the article depicted a threat against law enforcement officials,” he writes in a piece for Hopes & Fears.
BOP spokesman Ed Ross says he is not aware of inmates being punished for blogs that are critical of the prison system, and underscored that claims against the BOP are “the word[s] of convicted felons.”
“Inmates can write what they want to write, obviously, and often it is critical of the prison system,” Ross tells The Kind. “As long as it doesn’t create a threat to the safety of the prison, I don’t think that there’s anything that we could do.”
Ross would not comment directly on the testimony of Ferranti and several other federal prisoners who claim they were punished, threatened, and intimidated for the blogs that they were authoring by proxy.
(Prisoners are not allowed access to the Internet. They send blog posts and articles to a third party via snail mail or CorrLinks, a special email system for prisoners. The third party can then post the text online for the prisoner.)
California Department of Corrections information officer Dana Simas says that while prisoners lack access to the Internet, “If an inmate’s loved one wants to post the written letters from an inmate to a blog, we do not monitor it.”
Still, word gets around. Prisoners talk. Staff talk. People on the outside talk.
A federal inmate and former practicing lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal corroborates Ferranti’s experience: “The good ol’ BOP pretty effectually silenced my blog,” he writes in a letter. Despite the First Amendment rights guaranteed to prisoners, “In practice, prison officials have the ability to make your life so miserable that they can shut most inmates up. That’s what happened to me.”
When the former lawyer’s blog caught the attention of prison officials, “they flipped out,” he explains. The blog, now defunct, began by detailing the trial that led to his conviction and morphed into a meditation on daily life behind bars. “I was told point blank that the BOP is a conservative, secretive organization that does not take kindly to those that shed light on its practices.”
After facing a barrage of threats, including Diesel therapy (a punishment that involves being shipped by bus in shackles around the country for months), loss of email and phone privileges, the possibility of being transferred to a higher security prison and losing a year off earned for good behavior, he was ultimately locked in solitary confinement. He agreed to take down his blog shortly thereafter.
Justin Paperny, a prison consultant who served 18 months in federal prison for violating security laws, runs Etikallc.com, which features blog posts from about 15 prisoners currently behind bars. Paperny says that the guest bloggers on his site haven’t encountered any backlash from prison officials or the BOP. However, he admits to editing his writers’ work and believes in a measured approach to blogging.
“You shouldn’t write negatively about staff or guards or inmates,” he advises. “You don’t want to write about things that could jeopardize what they’re trying to do there, like writing negatively about another inmate or staff or trade secret. That threatens the security of the institution. That’s when they could shut you down or try to intimidate you and threaten you.”
According to BOP spokesman Ross, if a prison feels its security is threatened by an inmates’ writing, it can take steps to prevent the author from publishing. Prison staff will even work with the FBI to take down the offending material or address the problem.
Because it can be difficult to prove that an article or blog post poses a direct threat to a person or prison, officials sometimes resort to roundabout means of doling out punishment. Ferranti claims he was not officially thrown into the hole for writing, but for sham accusations. The anonymous prisoner recounts a similar story: “I was charged and ultimately convicted, despite disputing it, of ‘violating a direct order.’ The direct order? To stop blogging. So the charge stuck even though the order itself was constitutionally suspect.”
Robert J. Rosso, a regular contributor to VICE and the Fix, and an active blogger who is serving a life sentence for a non-violent drug offense, says that backlash toward inmates covering controversial topics is “a given.”
“The day will come when you will write something that staff doesn't like, and there will be retaliation,” he writes via CorrLinks.
He notes that some staff and officials, as well as other inmates, are supportive of his work; it all depends on the prison administration in a given facility. His advice to would-be writers is to read, learn, and memorize all prison policies related to correspondence, media contacts, phone policy, and manuscripts and get to know the administration well. Especially, he says, the Special Investigative Supervisors (SIS), which he calls the “BOP’s Gestapo.”
Rosso and Ferranti both say that when they develop a relationship with the staff, they concede to the reasonable boundaries staff sets. That might entail changing names or certain details. “Their main concern is that the executive staff or powers that be in Washington don’t come down on their asses for something that you wrote,” Rosso says.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the BOP’s policy on inmate manuscripts actually encourages inmates to “use their leisure time for creative writing,” which encompasses “fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music and lyrics, drawings and cartoons, and other writings of a similar nature.” Blogging isn’t explicitly delineated in the policy, and is typically treated like any work published under a byline.
But while blogs may be treated like newspaper articles, there are significant differences. Blogs have made it much easier for prisoners to broadcast their thoughts. Any prisoner can start a blog with the help of a friend or loved one; only prisoners with news to report (or newsworthy testimony) can author an article.
In a similar vein, blogs typically don’t go through a formal editing a process; so prisoners can express themselves in full. Seth Ferranti may use a blog platform to publish articles about prison life; another prisoner may simply want an outlet for poetry or prose.
“Blogs are more like open letters to the world,” the anonymous inmate explains.
The BOP’s current policy on bylines is relatively new. Less than a decade ago, the BOP fought against granting the right to prisoners.
In 2007, a federal court ruled that the BOP’s long-held regulations maintaining that inmates may not “act as [a] reporter” or “publish under a byline” were unconstitutional. (Ferranti became adept at circumventing the vague byline law when he began publishing work in the late ’90s by using a pseudonym or sticking his name at the bottom of the article.)
Notwithstanding this ruling, Maine has retained a law that bars state prisoners from publishing under a byline. Fusion.net shed light on Maine’s law this past June when convicted murderer Randall Daluz faced the possibility of having his religious blog, “The Journal of a New Creation,” shut down. The blog persists, but so does the law.
Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News, says he’s surprised that there haven’t been any concerted challenges to the byline law in Maine, or to other “gray area” BOP policies, such as banning inmates from running social media accounts via proxy. “This is still a nascent or developing area of law,” he says.
Ferranti, the anonymous blogger, and Rosso all believe that specific legislation concerning blogging and clarifying publishing rights in general could benefit prisoners by giving them a more robust dispute procedure against officials who bend policy to the detriment of the prisoner.
“This is a classic case of the rules and practices not keeping pace with technology: They’re more geared toward old print publications and writing letters,” says the anonymous source.
It might seem petty to focus on inmates’ publishing rights when other gross inequities in the system persist—such as mass incarceration of minorities—but writing is a crucial solace for prisoners trying to make sense of their fate and a means for them to reach the outside world from which they are largely cut off.
Ferranti says he began by writing about his sentence. “I couldn’t believe it; I was in shock. I didn’t kill anyone; I just sold LSD and marijuana. I was extremely angry; so I was trying to write about it because I wanted the world to recognize what was happening to me.”
Roy Rodney Jr., a lawyer who served time in federal prison for failing to file income taxes, launched INK, a prison writing contest, in 2013. Rodney says he was overwhelmed by the amount—and the quality—of the submissions he received. During the first round of collections, entries numbered in the thousands. “Right now, mass incarceration is about numbers,” he says. “People are concerned with how many people are locked up, but what they really don’t focus on is the incredible human cost.” Rodney believes that proliferating prisoners’ words has the power to humanize the voices they represent.
Rodney also notes the long tradition of prison writing: “From Paul the Apostle, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter From a Birmingham Jail,’ to a whole bevy of prison Russian dissidents, one thing that prison writing has shown us is that a voice can be heard even when the body is incarcerated or removed from society.”
Rosso was inspired to write for an inverse purpose—to educate the people of society who are removed from prison. “When I’m outside on the yard or looking out my cell window, and I see these layers of fences and all of that dangerous-looking, circular razor wire on top, I don’t see fences that keep inmates locked in, I see fences that keep the public locked out,” he says. “Just think if we had one journalist in every federal prison? More people would be better informed about what’s going on in here, which would lead to better polices.”
Rosso joined the long tradition of prison writing in a similarly inverse fashion, by critiquing an established work about prison by a non-prisoner. After being thrown into the hole for nearly a year while serving time in SUP Leavenworth, he began reading feverishly and eventually stumbled upon Peter Earley’s The Hot House, which details six months the journalist spent in the prison interviewing prisoners and staff. Even though Rosso found the book compelling and well written, he felt that it ultimately offered an inaccurate portrayal by someone “who obviously had no ties to criminal activity.”
Rosso says that when he was there, Leavenworth was “a non-stop drug- and alcohol-fueled party, where homemade booze flowed freely, heroin was plentiful, and the sounds of laughter far outweighed the sounds of blood-curdling screams.” The day he finished reading The Hot House, he picked up a pen and paper and began writing about his own experiences in Leavenworth.
Though Rosso is currently serving a life sentence for one count of a conspiracy to sell methamphetamine, he believes he has a good chance of getting out within two to three years. Six sentencing reform bills are pending in Congress, and his petition for clemency is sitting in the Pardon Attorney’s office. (The Justice Department released 6,000 prisoners this fall in an effort to ease overcrowding and reduce the harsh punishments given to drug offender in the ’80s and ’90s.)
In the meanwhile, he plans to continue writing, regardless of obstacles administrators throw in his path.
“The journey you embark on may not seem worth it at times,” he says. “But every so often you’ll write a story that pops, and people are reading what you have to say. And that can be an awesome feeling.”