Good Morning, Mr. President
Reginald S. Lewis
This letter (to President Obama) was sent to SPC by Reginald S. Lewis, a Pennsylvania death row inmate. Through the help of “snail mail” and Mr. Lewis’ typewriter, the PNL is publishing a voice from part of society often left silent and unheard.
You’ll rise amid the opulence of the White House, God willing. Kiss the First Lady, eat breakfast, prepare Sasha and Malia for school, check text messages on your specially designed Blackberry, consult with the cadre of Secret Service agents about your travel itinerary, then the Vice President, Secretary of State and the ingenious minds that comprise your brilliantly assembled Cabinet. Later, perhaps you’ll meet with the obliging press acolytes, deliver a fiery speech and sit down with a group of foreign diplomats, dignitaries and luminaries.
You enjoy high approval ratings because an overwhelming majority of US citizens believe you are doing an excellent job. Civil libertarians and constitutional scholars applaud your moral courage to sign the Executive Order closing Guantánamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. But eight long, harrowing years of the Bush Regime waged an hellacious war on the few constitutional protections for the politically powerless inside our own “Guantánamo Bays” all across the United States.
Since April 28, 2008, 37 newspapers, 203 magazines, 17 newsletters and over 670 books made the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ “Master Publication Denial List.” All God’s Children, by Rene Denfeld, is banned alongside The Muslim Observer, Essence Magazine, all books by the great historian J.A. Rogers, and even Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. And we won’t get to read the interview of Michelle Obama, because even Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine is banned.
It mirrors the oppressive, time-warped cruelty when the “Puritans” set foot on Plymouth Rock. Or the archaic and regressive abuse of the 19th century by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which severely restricted what could be sent, or received, through the mail.
As a former president of the Harvard Law Review, and a constitutional scholar yourself, we’re sure you understand our concerns. Perhaps you thought the American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno – which established “free speech” on the Internet - resolved the question, but it didn’t.
On the morning of January 16, 2009 – a mere four days before your inauguration as the first African American President of the United States – we were jolted awake by a crude announcement from Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections Jeffrey A. Beard, Ph.D.: “…Prisoners shall not solicit or otherwise commercially advertise for money, services or goods. Inmates are also specifically prohibited from advertising for pen pals.”
Say what?! In Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CCADP) v. Ryan, the US District Court of Arizona struck down a similar provision as “unconstitutional.” The Justices reasoned that because the constitutional rights of both inmates and outsiders were affected, the question becomes whether the regulation “…is reasonably related to legitimate penological objectives, or represents an exaggerated response to those concerns.” The CCADP and other groups argued that they had a right to maintain prisoners’ internet websites – as well as their own - “as an integral part of their advocacy and public education.”
Recently, Secretary Beard went before the Pennsylvania State Legislature seeking a 10% increase in the annual $1.8 billion budget. He claims he needs to build more prisons, totaling 9,937 new cells, by 2012.
We sure hope these cells have windows. Because in an ever-expanding age of sophisticated communications systems that connect the global community in an instant, he wants to nail shut our only little dusky window to the world.