Zakarie Faibis, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Writing while Black. That’s an unconscionable sin when you’re in prison, particularly when there’s pressure to embrace silence out of fear of being placed in solitary confinement.

In prison, journalists and other writers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. There’s no such thing as a warrantless search, and never mind California’s shield law, which gives journalists the right to protect the identity of confidential sources. Anything written in a prisoner’s possession, or personal property, is fair game to the thought police. And it’s likely to be used against the writer. 

Nearly 50 years after San Quentin prison guards assassinated prisoner, writer and political activist George Jackson, in what they called an escape attempt, his ghost still haunts the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

I’m a writer and journalist who writes primarily for the inmate-run publication, San Quentin News at the prison of the same name. When the Columbia Journalism Review published a story about us six years ago, the News had a print run of about 11,500. Today it’s 30,000, with plans to expand by another 5,000 before the COVID-19 pandemic. For more than four years I’ve been the associate editor, working behind the scenes as the paper’s business manager.

I’m no Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jack Henry Abbott, Eldridge Cleaver or George Jackson, but that didn’t stop the prison’s “goon squad” from attempting to shut me down from reading and writing.

Nine years ago, I was transferred from Folsom State Prison to San Quentin, the infamous Bastille by the Bay. It was done as part of California’s effort to reduce its prison population. 

When it was discovered in my property that I’d done a lot of unpopular writing and reading, I was deemed a “revolutionary” and possibly a Black Guerilla Family gang member or affiliate. My writing, notes, quote and research were confiscated by the prison’s “goon squad.” That’s how it works in a place designed not so much to keep men and women inside but to keep the public out.

At the time (and to this day), I’d remained disciplinary free which is no small undertaking in prison. A guard viewed my reading and writing regimen as inflammatory. 

“Every book George Jackson’s read, you’ve read,” a prison guard working in the Institutional Gang Investigation unit told me months after seizing my writings, notes, quotes, and research. 

When confronted on the matter, most writers would probably shrink, abandon their rights under the First Amendment, and concede defeat. Not me.

With the threat of falsely being identified as a gang member looming over my head like the sword of Damocles, I filed a grievance to end the profiling. When a prisoner is maligned, it has a direct impact on whether the state’s parole board finds him or her suitable for release. 

I also requested to have my material returned to me and to have my record purged of any misleading gang information.

After exhausting my administrative remedies with San Quentin, I followed up with a federal civil rights suit, Sawyer v. Chappell, et al., (Case No.3:15-cv-00220-JD). The District Court dismissed the case on summary judgment. But the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (768 Fed. Appx.669 and 2019 U.S. App.LEXIS 11468) “reversed and remanded” the case back down on three issues. The case was settled last year. 

When a man’s freedom is taken away, all of his rights are not discarded. Some rights are preserved. But more importantly, when the past becomes a reminder of what a man is no longer, all he has are his words. A prisoner’s word has to mean something in prison because that’s all that’s left. His word fortifies his reputation as someone who is “solid.” If your word ain’t shit, you ain’t shit. It’s that simple. And I don’t write for the state. I write for the people. That’s a crime in and of itself.

At a time when the flaws in our criminal justice system are well-known and well-documented, experts and advocates say a shift in how the media covers prison and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue.

If I don’t get out of prison soon, look forward to more of my writings about incarceration. Like I said, I’m nothing like my aforementioned predecessors, but I’m nobody’s punk or Guerilla either. I’m a writer and a trained, college-educated journalist. Nine years later, I’m still fighting for my right to write and yours too. Because as George Jackson said, “It should never be easy for them to destroy us.”

When prison gates slam behind an inmate he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not close to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor his quest for self-realization conclude. If anything, the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.

— Thurgood Marshall, U.S. Supreme Court Justice

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is an African American native of San Francisco and has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals. He is a contributing writer for PJP, a a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a former associate editor for San Quentin News. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to incarceration, Kevin worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years. He holds a bachelor of arts in mass communication from California State University, Hayward.