We received an unusual letter last week here at The Atlantic, from the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, one of the larger prisons in the California state system (and home to the state's death row for women). The letter concerned one of our subscribers, an inmate who was denied her copy of the December 2011 issue of the magazine (which featured an article about Pakistan written by Marc Ambinder and yours truly), because the cover image was of a member of the Taliban holding a rifle. Here is the letter, with the inmate's name blacked-out, along with the name of the prison official who wrote the letter, for reasons of privacy. We have confirmed the authenticity of the letter, and that the inmate in question, who is serving a 20-year-to-life sentence for 2nd-degree murder, is a subscriber (The Atlantic's readership ranges from the White House to the Big House, apparently):
Obviously, we found this decision very troubling -- we don't believe our article encouraged violence, and we certainly want to stick up for the rights of our readers. And it is my personal opinion that while prisons have an obvious, justifiable reason to keep written material that incites violence out of the hands of the people they incarcerate, prison censors should always err on the side of the free speech. So I wrote the following letter to the prison's warden, Deborah K. Johnson:
I am writing in reference to a decision by officials of the CCWF to deny Inmate REDACTED access to a copy of the December, 2011 issue of The Atlantic magazine, to which she subscribes. According to a communication from REDACTED the inmate did not receive her copy of The Atlantic because the publication included "material on the front cover that contained a picture depicting a male carrying an assault riffle [sic]."
I am writing on behalf of The Atlantic to appeal this decision. The Atlantic is a national magazine of ideas, news and opinion. It was founded over 150 years ago. The goal of our magazine is to provide its readers with responsible, deeply researched journalism about the pressing issues of the day. Writers published in The Atlantic include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Fallows. The cover story of the December 2011 issue, co-authored by me, concerns the U.S. relationship with Pakistan. The article posits that Pakistan should be a foremost foreign policy concern of the United States, in part because it sponsors and harbors anti-American terrorists. The picture on the cover, taken by one of America's most illustrious photographers, Lynsey Addario, is of a member of an anti-American terror group.
The photograph has great journalistic merit. It vividly illustrates the challenges American leaders face in Pakistan and the surrounding region. The photograph and story do not glorify violence in any way. Quite the opposite: We published the article, and the accompanying images, in order to highlight the dangers of violence of South Asia.
We believe that The Atlantic serves a valuable educational purpose for its readers, including REDACTED, and we would encourage you to rethink the decision to deny her access to our magazine. The denial letter states that "this is based on a violation of the California Code of Regulations, Section 3134.1 (d,e), which states in part, 'no warefare [sic] or weaponary [sic]." Could you please provide more information about this particular section of the California Code of Regulations? Thank you in advance for your assistance in this matter.
As soon as we receive a response from the warden, we will share it with Atlantic readers.