Prison Writing & Political Will

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Louisiana State Penitentiary’s magazine, “The Angolite,” written and edited by inmates.

In the midst of the California prison system’s crackdown on dissent, inmates across the country lack the crucial tool: freedom of expression.

As prisoners in California entered the tenth day of statewide hunger strikes staged in opposition to the long-term solitary confinement policies of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), news broke that administrators were countering activism with reprisal.

Confined for up to twenty-three hours per day in cramped, windowless cells called Security Housing Units (SHUs) at Pelican Bay State Prison, the inmates who initiated the protests—which spread to include 30,000 prisoners across two-thirds of state facilities—did so as a plea to abolish indefinite isolation. Although the enduring psychological harm of solitary confinement is well established—the U.N. has called for the prohibition of the practice in excess of fifteen days—many of California’s prisoners have been stuck in solitary for decades.

Rather than consider the demands presented, CDCR cut off access to broadcast news and confiscated some of the legal papers of fourteen Pelican Bay participants, forcing them into administrative segregation—an even more punitive form of isolation, according to a statement from the prisoners.

“Despite this diabolical act on the part of CDCR intended to break our resolve and hasten our deaths,” the statement read, “we remain strong and united! We are 100% committed to our cause and will end our peaceful action when CDCR signs a legally binding agreement meeting our demands.”

Eminently reasonable, these demands include: adequate food for SHU inmates; educational and rehabilitative programming; one phone call per week; and the elimination of “debriefing,” a policy that poses severe safety risks by making release from solitary contingent upon informing on other inmates. “Hunger strikes are the last option for prisoners,” explains Shane Bauer, the journalist whose traumatic confinement in Iran in 2009 compelled him to investigate conditions at Pelican Bay last year. With administrative and legal attempts proving futile, prisoners are risking their health as a final resort.

In a New York Times op-ed published earlier this week, acclaimed journalist and former death row inmate Wilbert Rideau wrote that such protests are “generally done by men made desperate by the lack of options to address their grievances. At the heart of the problem is the lack of open communications and freedom of expression.” Rideau—who spent forty-four years imprisoned at Louisiana State Penitentiary, or “Angola,” for killing a teller during a botched bank robbery in 1961 when he was nineteen—is an expert on such freedoms. He was editor of the inmate-published magazine, The Angolite, when then-warden C. Paul Phelps—tasked with cleaning up the bloodiest prison in the country—took the unprecedented step of granting Rideau’s insistence on freedom from censorship. Phelps saw benefit in “a credible vehicle of information in a place traditionally ruled by rumor.”

In his memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, Rideau chronicles the remarkable unfurling of a prison made transparent, where corruption and brutality are laid bare to be corrected. Angola went on to become one of the safest maximum-security institutions in the country; The Angolite won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and was nominated for seven National Magazine awards; and Rideau—who had entered prison with an eighth-grade education—received the George Polk Award for his in-depth reporting on the unchecked problem of prison rape, the electric chair, and fear on death row. “The biggest problem out there,” he writes in his memoir, “is that the general public and those with the power to change things are seriously misinformed about what prison life is all about.” While it’s clear that the achievements of Rideau and The Angolite are singular, we’ve come a very long way from any semblance of a legitimate prison press, leaving inmates with limited outlets to report abuses, vocalize causes, or ultimately set the agenda for the policy discussions that concern them most.

“There are more prisoners than ever, but the emotional distance we have from prisons is also greater than ever,” suggests Sarita Alami, a historian at work on a project that employs digital methods like topic modeling and text mining to identify patterns in archived prison periodicals. Analyzing the volume and content of inmate journalism from 1912 through 1980—what she calls the “golden years”—Alami studies intervals of collective unrest and activism in prisons. She has determined that the Great Depression, the early 1950s, and the late 1960s through early 1970s—time periods characterized by widespread riots, lawsuits, and work stoppages—corresponded to upswings in prison journalism, which she posits as a key facilitator of resistance and reform.

But as prison populations ballooned in recent decades, inmate-produced media did not experience a parallel upsurge. According to Alami, the penal press was suppressed twofold: by the rise of the prison-industrial complex, and by broad shifts in media consumption. Private prisons proliferated in the 1980s, prioritizing cost-saving measures over rehabilitation, thereby edging out the programming and resources needed for publishing. The advent of the war on drugs produced overcrowding, budgetary shortfalls, security concerns, and a crackdown on dissent that continues to prevail. Meanwhile, the ascension of the Internet, while expanding the scope of information on the outside, served to cut off prisoners from the mediated public sphere of the modern world.

While technology ostensibly represents a threat to security, former prisoner Michael Santos contends that administrators could almost certainly “provide access to the Web while simultaneously introducing security precautions that would protect society.” Santos, who was released last year and is now an author and a consultant, believes that because of the Internet ban, “few people who haven’t experienced imprisonment can understand why our country’s prison system is such an abysmal failure when measured by recidivism rates and cost.” Not only might the citizenry be better informed about life in prison if inmates had some kind of Internet access, but inmates could also act as watchdogs, identifying human rights violations and assessing reforms.

Jon Marc Taylor, who entered prison as a nineteen-year-old in 1981 and is serving a seventy-one–year sentence in Missouri, says he’s never been on the Internet, but sees it as a “vast resource I can’t wait to tap into.” A writer and academic, he pursued education as a means towards rehabilitation, and eventually earned his PhD through correspondence courses. Navigating postsecondary correctional education proved challenging, so Taylor wrote a resource for would-be students, entitled Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook to Correspondence Programs in the U.S. and Canada. He also reported on the consequences of eliminating Pell grants for prisoners—crucial in pursuit of his own scholarship—and was granted the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for his efforts.

Although twenty-seven-year-old Virginia prisoner Christopher Zoukis has never met Taylor, he says of Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook, “That text was my salvation. I found a sense of belonging reading about the struggles of my fellow prisoners.” A prolific writer for education- and law-oriented blogs, as well as for Prison Legal News, Zoukis—who had not completed high school when he entered prison—focuses on the rights of prisoners, and skirts research obstacles by maintaining close contacts on the outside who send him source material for his work. “Most other prisoners do not have access to such terrific research assistance,” he admits. It was through these contacts that I got in touch with Zoukis, after FCI Petersburg denied my request for an interview.

Much has been written about the trials faced by journalists seeking access to prisons—both the roadblocks created by administrations and the failure of media organizations to invest the time and money necessary. Lorna Rhodes, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington who spent several years conducting research in a maximum-security prison, notes “If you’re looking in from the outside, prisons present an impenetrable wall with designated spokespeople whose responses are clearly scripted.”

Zoukis aims “to open a window into the life of the incarcerated, because not enough light or attention from the outside makes it in.” But light and attention are often unwanted. In 2011, while editing the free “Education Behind Bars Newsletter,” Zoukis was condemned to five months in solitary confinement for allegedly conducting a business. Despite the fact that the newsletter was not profitable and ceased publication when Zoukis entered the SHU, he continued to receive incident reports extending his time in isolation—evidence, he argues, that the administration was “sending a message: write for publication and face the consequences.”

“It’s hard to express the feeling of being released from a long-term period of sensory deprivation,” Zoukis says. “I had done virtually nothing but read and write within my small enclosure, one I shared with a very mentally ill man and a number of small, flying insects. I never saw the sun, and only the grass very fleetingly. Even the air tasted different.” Returning to general population, Zoukis recalls feeling “panicked and a little bit shell-shocked,” and explains, “I wasn’t as happy or optimistic as I once had been. I had become more aggravated and upset.”

Of the damage caused by isolating a writer for his work, Zoukis says, “It’s a deterrent, to be sure. Prison administrators tell you not to worry, the hole is only used for the worst of the worst. It’s only used for major security threats—prison education advocates such as myself. The five months of my life locked in that little, noisy, steel and concrete box can never be given back to me.”

Seth Ferranti, a prisoner at FCC Forest City in Arkansas who is nearing the end of a twenty-five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense that occurred when he was twenty-two, is another writer whose work has gotten him in trouble. Ferranti writes about basketball, hip-hop, prison gangs, and drug treatment and recovery for websites like The Fix—all published via his wife, who is not in prison. Ferranti’s work exposes the complex workings of prison life that rarely enter public perspective, such as the ways in which Mexican cartels recruit in U.S. prisons, the powerful drug empire run by the Aryan Brotherhood, and the 51,000-person waiting list for addiction treatment in federal prisons. Many of these topics administrations would prefer kept quiet. In late June, Ferranti told The Fix he’d been placed in solitary confinement in retaliation, he believes, for an investigation he’d been conducting. He suggested The Fix publish a piece wryly titled, “Drug Treatment Writer Snatched Out of Treatment for Writing About It.”

But Ferranti knows the drill. Before this latest lock-up, he wrote to me, “I’ve been put in the hole more times than I can count for my writing. I have been transferred. I have had my mail seized, held, and not delivered. I have had my phone, email, and visiting privileges taken away for months on end. I have been placed under severe scrutiny. This is what I’ve been subjected to by the [Bureau of Prisons], all in the attempt to get me not to write. There is a lot of misinformation out there and I try to put the truth and reality in my writing. I have been buried in prison for twenty years for a first-time, non-violent offense, and am resolute that my voice will be heard and changes will be made.”

There are some resources available for inmates who want to be heard, but don’t have friends or family members on the outside willing to help amplify their voices. Dina Milito, who was once the victim of a violent crime, came across the writing of Thomas Whitaker, a death row inmate in Texas, in her attempts to understand why people commit violent acts. Whitaker’s father had helped him start a blog called Minutes Before Six, which references the time of day that Texas’s condemned face execution. Of the blog’s inception, Whitaker writes, “I never had any expectation that anyone would ever stumble across my tiny plot of digital backwater.” Milito did, and in correspondence with Whitaker, realized they shared similar questions—how had he arrived at where he was? She took over maintenance of the blog, which has since expanded to include over a dozen dedicated writers from around the country. Whitaker describes the goals of MB6: “With our partners in the free world, we hope that this site will be one participant in the larger conversation about criminal justice reform, and will be able to stand as evidence for something that we all know in our cores, beneath our politics and our prejudices: people change. They grow.”

Through Milito, I sent a letter to Whitaker inquiring about the challenges he faces as an incarcerated writer, but he never received it. “That’s ‘lost’ mail for you,” responded Milito, who explained that his correspondence is closely monitored due to his MB6 writing. “Mailing back and forth is expensive, and the writing supplies are, too. Especially for those on death row, who are not allowed to work. They have to come up with typewriters, ribbon, and postage, then after all that the mail disappears.”

Christi Buchanan, another MB6 writer who is imprisoned in Virginia, did receive my letter. Her work centers on the solidarity of women in prison and she has written about the support she received from other inmates during the lead-up to her husband’s last-minute stay of execution (he was later put to death by the State of Virginia in 1988). In 2011, she received second place for memoir in PEN’s prison writing contest for a piece called “The Ring.” In it, she describes giving birth to a baby boy in police custody and subsequently putting him up for adoption. “How could I keep him? It was practically guaranteed that I would be going to prison for a very long time. His adoptive parents said if I wrote him a letter they would be sure to give it to him when he was old enough. So I did, but that was all.” Sixteen years later, Buchanan loses the ring that stands as a reminder of her son, and flies into a panic. Of the rules of prison, Buchanan writes, “kindness does not exist because people have to look out for themselves.” But she continues, “that night in the lifer’s wing, the good stuff came out in such a glorious way.” Her fellow prisoners scour the facility on her behalf, sifting through trashcans and looking in shower drains, eventually finding the ring. Nevertheless, her letter to me explains, “As convicts, we lose our humanity as far as the public’s concerned. We stop being people and become some cold, uncaring, violent, uneducated animal, not to be trusted at all.”

Blogs are a powerful tool to humanize the prisoners who make up 1 percent of the U.S. population, but according to Charlie DeTar, founder of the project Between the Bars, “they’re not very scalable, they can be time-consuming, and they tend to be [accessible] to wealthier, white people with strong outside connections.” Between the Bars, which publishes prisoners’ stories and frustrations by scanning and transcribing letters that arrive from across the country, seeks to address these issues. Website visitors help transcribe posts, and comments are mailed back to prisoners to maintain ongoing dialogue. Benjamin Sugar, who helps run the project, notes that many families use it as a way to keep in touch—“a mom will comment on her incarcerated son’s blog, and all of a sudden you’re reminded that this is someone who has a family. These public examples of small, tender moments of communication are really powerful.” 

In addition to preserving the strength of such ties and decreasing the othering and stigma that can plague both prisoners and their families, Between the Bars aims to help people maintain identities as citizens, as opposed to being labeled as “offenders.” DeTar brings up one regular blogger, William D. Linley, whose post-traumatic stress disorder following seventeen years in the Marine Corps contributed to his incarceration. Linley’s posts have gathered a loyal following of Marines who knew him as a Sergeant, and attest to his leadership. “You were always a man of great compassion for his troops and ensured their welfare came first,” one writes, “I will remain a friend and brother to you.” “Where will we find the political will to stop locking people up, and to lock them up for less time?” DeTar asks. “I think in order to cultivate that political will, we need to stop thinking of people in prison as different types people.” But there’s a long way to go—Between the Bars has a wait list of 1,000 prisoners hoping to have their voices heard. 

After eleven days, the hunger strikes in California continued, with added retaliation. At Pelican Bay, it was reported that prison officials began to blast cold air into the cells of participating inmates, many of whom are aging, suffer from chronic illness, and have only summer clothing, due to their transfer into administrative segregation. CDCR has banned one of the attorneys representing many participants, Marilyn McMahon, from visiting her clients. To break their commitment, McMahon has put forth in a statement, “the CDCR wants to cut off communications between the prisoners and the outside world.”