The Pen Is Mightier Than the Pen

Prison censors' motto: What you don't know can't hurt us.

What's prison life without Prison Life?
Imagine a full-service broker without his Wall Street Journal, a Park Avenue publishing executive without her New Yorker, a latte-guzzling cyberpunk without his Wired or--egads--a capitalist tool without a single copy of Forbes to while away the lonely hours on the corporate jet. It's too horrible to contemplate.

Readers of Prison Life feel just as strongly about the strident bimonthly, which is owned and operated by ex-cons and provides a gritty, take-no-prisoners view of life behind bars. Six times a year, the Houston-based magazine's 25,000 readers, most of whom are serving time themselves, can get the inside story on the drug war, AIDS in prison, "the vengeful lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key lynch-mob mentality that is destroying America," and other topics of concern. They can also dive into the popular classifieds section in search of a pen pal ("Falsely accused, on death row, expect complete vindication. Seek correspondence w/lady, preferable physician or atty").

They can do all of this--unless they happen to be subscribers imprisoned in Colorado. Despite protests from prison activists and criticism from civil-liberties advocates, in recent months the state's Department of Corrections has designated a wide range of publications as contraband and barred their delivery to inmates. While such decisions are supposed to be made on a case-by-case basis, the censoring of incoming mail has come to encompass not only sexually explicit magazines but several political, news, music and even computer publications. A consistent target has been Prison Life, which apparently is now banned from all DOC prisons.

"In the view of our staff, it contains inflammatory materials that don't contribute to the safe management of a correctional facility," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough. "It's disallowed across the board now."

Prison Life publisher Vance Williams says he's unaware of any outright ban on the magazine by the DOC and doubts that a blanket rejection of all future issues is constitutional. "They can't do that," he says.

Inmates don't give up their First Amendment rights when they're convicted, but they don't exactly have the run of the mailroom, either. Books on bomb-making or famous escapes have always been taboo, and a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision gave prison administrators considerable leeway to reject other kinds of publications, too, provided that the decision was "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests" such as maintaining security or encouraging rehabilitation.

More recently, an amendment to the 1997 Omnibus Budget Act prohibits magazines that "feature nudity" from being distributed in federal prisons. Last fall a memo from the warden to prisoners at the federal supermax prison in Florence explained that, while skin mags were definitely out, a magazine like the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition would still be acceptable "because it does not feature nudity on a regular basis."

The federal no-nudes rule is already being challenged in court, but that hasn't stopped the DOC from cracking down on publications that its Comstockian censors consider objectionable. Colorado ACLU legal director Mark Silverstein says he's looking into several reports of mass-market publications being banned by "reading committees" at various prisons across the state.

In one case, an issue of Penthouse was rejected because "the content encouraged a bad attitude about women," Silverstein says. The official contraband slip the prisoner received states: "Portrays women in a degrading manner, objectifying them as sex objects. Promotes unrealistic and unhealthy expectations and interpersonal attitudes."

The same sort of language, Silverstein notes, was used by feminists to craft anti-pornography legislation that has since been held to be unconstitutional. "It's such a broad rationale that it could be applied to all kinds of publications," he says.

Silverstein says he's received complaints from prisoners not only about their sex magazines being taken away--old reliables like Hustler, Gallery, High Society and Players--but also about a slew of biker magazines (which often feature nudity) and even Vibe, a hip-hop magazine. The ban seems to vary from one prison to the next and has been far from consistent in application at either the state or local level. One county-jail prisoner lamented that white inmates were allowed to receive Playboy but that he was denied his copy of Ebony Heat.

"He thought that he should be able to get a magazine that exploited women of his own race," Silverstein recalls.

Other sources report that inmates who work with computers as part of the DOC's contracts with private companies--a program that is supposed to help train prisoners and increase their job skills--have not been allowed to receive computer magazines. In other instances, naked political rhetoric has been deemed almost as dangerous as bare breasts or Unix code; recently, a copy of MIM Notes, the official newsletter of the Maoist International Movement, didn't make it past the thought police at Arrowhead Correctional Facility. (Reasons stated: "Clear and present danger to facility...justifies and advocates armed revolution, including the overthrow of the criminal justice system.")

Even information from the mainstream press isn't a shoo-in. Prison activist Sandi Izor says she sent her husband, Garry, who's serving twenty-to-life for murder, an article about prison rape that she found on the Internet. The article was rejected and sent back to her--because, a note explained, the article raised "mental health concerns relative to treatment." Her husband, Izor notes, isn't a sex offender and isn't in mental-health treatment; as for the offending article, it was first published in the New York Times.

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