The Free Speech of Prisoners

Incarcerated people are usually American citizens—with the exception of the many immigrants detained for lack of visas or other papers—and as American citizens one would expect that they would be subject to the provisions of the Bill of Rights which includes freedom of speech. But that may not necessarily be so. The issue came up when a weekly debate club in Statesville Correctional Center in Crest Hills, Illinois, was suspended without explanation. They had been debating the pros and cons of parole and in particular the virtues of parole— even though there has been no parole in Illinois since 1978.   The debate adviser Katrina Burlet along with Bill Ryan founder of the prison newsletter “Statesville Speaks” then organized a conference in Chicago so that the prisoners’ views could be heard.    Eugene Ross 41, a prisoner who had been part of the debate class spoke to reporters from prison via his sister’s cell phone. As he was speaking prison officials came to his cell, confiscated the phone, and took him to solitary. He stayed there for the night.  The stay was not longer only because of outside pressure to have him released from the many calls to Statesville from people who had heard him and had witnessed his voice being cut off. Prisoners it seems have no freedom of speech. They can be retaliated against when they give their opinion in some way or other.  That’s why Ross says there is a need for the voice of the oppressed, for those who are in prison.

Most of us are ignorant of what really happens inside a prison, and the more we can learn the more we can understand whether the kind of prisons we have are good for society. It’s one thing to take away someone’s freedom, it’s another to deprive that someone of his/her ability to voice his/her views, or to punish that person when he/she speaks.   And so we must ask, why can’t inmates be allowed their civil rights, why can’t they have basic rights?