Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Prison lacked cause to seize letter, court rules

June 6, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle by Bob Egelko

When maximum-security inmate James Crawford tried to mail a letter to a San Francisco newspaper in which he described himself as a "New Afrikan Nationalist Revolutionary Man," a prison officer confiscated it, saying it threatened prison security and probably contained coded gang messages.

But the officer failed to identify the code, specify the security threat or respect the constitutional rights of the inmate, a state appeals court ruled Monday in ordering the letter delivered - more than two years after it was written.

"Prisoners retain their right to the freedom of speech unless the warden can prove that exercising that right would constitute a threat to prison security," said the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco.

"Even prisoners who are gang members retain rights of expression and those rights cannot be taken away by a governmental agency simply speculating" about security risks, said Justice James Lambden in the 3-0 ruling.

Crawford was convicted of robbery and auto theft in Los Angeles County, according to state records. Described by prison officials as a member of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, he is in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County.

The prison seized his letter, addressed to the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, from its mail system in April 2010. The letter disputed the newspaper's tally of political prisoners in California and said there were many inmates, like Crawford, held in solitary confinement "because of political beliefs in a New Afrikan Nationalist Revolutionary Man."

A prison guard who monitors the gang's mail said "New Afrikan" was a reference to the Black Guerrilla Family's ideology. Gang members use that ideology, the guard said, in "sophisticated codes" to promote gang activity, both in the prisons and on the streets.

Crawford denied any such intention and said his message was entirely political. Stanford history Professor James Campbell submitted a declaration in his behalf, saying "New Afrikan" was a phrase from a self-determination movement in the 1960s and 1970s that was unrelated to prison gangs.

Crawford's lawyer, Donald Specter, said Monday's ruling was important for prisoners who have "very limited access to the outside world."

"To have the prison censor them is to deprive them of what little freedom they have left," he said.

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