by Steve Champion
Steve Champion in a photo taken in 2007
On July 23, 2010, my cell was searched and three boxes of my property – legal material, books, notes and personal writings – were confiscated and turned over to Institutional Gang Investigations (IGI) for possible gang validation. The reason for the action, I was told, was my possession of a Kiswahili dictionary and the book “Soledad Brother” by George Jackson.
This is not the first time I have been targeted for a gang validation wherein George Jackson was the cause. In May 2007, I co-wrote an article in which we referred to Jackson as “Comrade George Jackson.” It was determined by IGI that the word “Comrade” constituted gang associate or sympathy; therefore, I needed to be investigated. The investigation yielded nothing.
I have been in San Quentin – and on death row – for almost 28 years, and for most of this time I have had George Jackson’s books in my cell. I ordered them through the prison Special Purchase Order (SPO). My cell has been searched hundreds if not thousands of times and never, not once, were George Jackson’s books taken.
Why now? And why the link to gang activity when it is well known that George Jackson was a member of the Black Panther Party and a political revolutionary? It is only by exposing the insidious and inscrutable use of politically charged books to label prisoners gang members, thereby criminalizing critical literacy, that we can arrive at answers. Both prisoners and prison activists need to understand how the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) is using political and historical texts to repress prisoners.
My story is not new or unique. I’ve read numerous accounts from across the U.S. prison landscape – state and federal – of prisoners having books by George Jackson, Che Guevara, Chairman Mao and others stolen from their cells or confiscated under the false pretext of gang activity. Some prisoners have even been validated as gang members and locked away indefinitely in Security Housing Units (SHUs).
And in June 2010, a ruling by a California appeals court explicitly condoned the practice in California, as follows: “Assigning an inmate to secure housing based on his possession of constitutionally protected materials linking him to a gang [does] not violate his first amendment rights.”
Let’s be clear. The confiscation of leftist and revolutionary books, magazines and newspapers is not a mere First Amendment issue; failing to understand the bigger picture will just extend your stay in wonderland. Thus, I’m not going to argue a case of censorship – although one can certainly be made since none of the above authors have been ruled to be either dangerous or obscene by a court of law or the PIC.
I am interested in a much broader analysis that deconstructs the current ideology of suppression in U.S. prisons that can be traced to other interrelated post-9/11 realities, such as creation of Homeland Security and the gradual erosion of civil liberties; the prosecution of a global “war on terrorism”; the virtually unrestricted spending on and by intelligence agencies; and redefining domestic terrorism to meet the threat posed by gang violence.