by Stephen Wilson
In February 2021, I was in solitary confinement, awaiting transfer, from SCI Fayette. Shortly before my transfer, I discovered that two guards, Rankin and Cavalleri, had trashed all of the books and paperwork that had been in my property, including ten years of journaling. I complained to the lieutenant, who investigated and found that I wasn’t the only person whose property had been destroyed. The guards were removed from the property handlers post.***
On March 10, 2021, I filed a grievance about the destruction of my property. That same day, I was transferred to SCI Camp Hill. On March 11, 2021, I received a confiscated mail form from Camp Hill’s mailroom. I was told I couldn’t receive PDFs via Smart Communications, the company the PA DOC contracts with to handle imprisoned people’s mail. This assertion was untrue. I had been receiving PDFs via Smart for years.***
I grieved the matter. Over the next few weeks, I received over 60 confiscation forms. The reasons given were all absurd. The real issue was my exercising my First Amendment right to file a grievance. I was being retaliated against. Retaliation is widespread behind the walls. It stops many imprisoned folks from fighting oppressive policies and practices. I understand their fears. But if we don’t fight, nothing will change. Actually, things get worse.***
From March until June, I continued to receive forms that stated “copyright infringement” as the rationale. The mailroom held that prisoners are not allowed to receive any materials with a copyright. When told that their stance effectively barred imprisoned people from reading anything published, they still refused to budge.***
On June 3, 2021, the Executive Deputy Secretary, Tabb Bickell, issued a memo clarifying the copyright issue. This memo was a response to the almost 100 grievances I had filed. In the memo, EDS Bickell clearly stated that as long as the material wasn’t an obviously copied chapter of a book, imprisoned people were allowed
to have it. I thought I had won.***
The EDS’s memo only enraged the mailroom. For two months, most of my mail was sent to another prisoner. His cellmate told me about it on the walk. They lived on another block. The person even argued with the guards about why he was receiving someone else’s mail. He had received letters, books, magazines, pictures, articles and even JPAY receipts in my name. I wrote the superintendent who had a unit manager investigate my claim. The unit manager, Mr. Miller, verified my claim. Still, I haven’t received any of that mail or been compensated for it.***
Throughout the summer and fall, the mailroom continued to confiscate my mail, claiming copyright issues. And I continued to grieve it. On November 24, 2021, PA DOC’s Central Office overturned the confiscations and stated that the mailroom had been misinterpreting DOC policy and the EDS’s memo all along. I thought I had won, again.***
Not one piece of the confiscated mail was given to me. Moreover, I began to receive mail that was postmarked two months prior. They had been holding my mail. When I grieved this, I was told that this withholding of my mail didn’t personally affect me. I am serious. They said that. In writing.***
As the one year mark of this struggle approached, I found myself back at square one. My mail was being confiscated again (copyright), my mail was being given to other imprisoned people, books and magazines disappeared. The mailroom does what it wants. There is no accountability. No DOC “discovers” abuse on its own. It takes outside pressure to get DOCs to change and address violations.***
This mailroom has attempted to block all abolitionist materials. Anything mentioning the Black Panthers is tagged as a threat (security threat group). If the word revolution appears in the title, it is banned. Even Toni Morrison has been banned here. They have gone as far to deny me my own work. Why? It is published. Copyright, remember?
There is an all out assault in political education at this prison. We are not fighting DOC policies. We are fighting Camp Hill practices. The positions the staff take here are not found in DOC policies. This is one way they are able to hide the censorship practices from the public. People looking inside via published policies cannot see the quotidian oppressive practices we endure.
Many of you are familiar with this situation. You have had mail you sent to me confiscated. There is nothing left to do but file a civil action. I have exhausted all administrative remedies. Camp Hill’s mailroom does what it wants to. Without outside intervention, there will be no changes. In order to file a civil action, I need your help. I need to raise funds for representation, copying and mailing costs. I have filed over 200 grievances. This is a matter of censorship. This is a matter of political education behind the walls. This is a matter of staying connecting across the walls. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Any assistance or guidance is helpful.