The Pen Is Mightier Than the Pen

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

"This is the kind of stuff that happens all the time," Izor says. "I sent my husband something about rape behind bars, and it was contrabanded."

But the DOC's McDonough insists that prison officials have the right to censor whatever they regard as a threat to the smooth operation of the corrections system. Computer magazines? "Computer fraud and theft are such concerns, you don't give someone a magazine that will teach them how to do it from a prison," she says.

A prison rape story from the New York Times? McDonough points out that Garry Izor is incarcerated at the Fremont Correctional Facility, "and sex offenders are housed there in large numbers." The article could fall into the wrong hands, she suggests.

As for Prison Life, the DOC's main objection seems to be one of authorship; many of its contributors are prisoners. "It's kind of the overall tone, where you have inmates writing about things in prison that upset them--and they have the same impact on a population," McDonough says. "Something that is going to rile someone up is probably not what you want."

Such a rationale troubles Silverstein, who regards prisons and military bases as the battlegrounds where government incursions on free speech are first fought. "If the Department of Corrections is allowed to ban materials because of the attitude it encourages, then that provides the basis for a free-ranging censorship," he says.

Riling people up, in any case, is what Prison Life is all about. "The magazine has a cutting-edge point of view," says publisher Williams. "We are critical of the system. But if you're an open-minded, intelligent person, why wouldn't you want to hear it from both sides?"

Williams acknowledges that other states have had problems with his magazine, too. At one point it was banned from every state prison in California "because we mentioned some guy that escaped [using] dental floss," a story that was also widely reported in newspapers. And his staff has to remove the "pen pals" section from copies mailed to prisoners in Mississippi. (Several states don't allow prisoners to correspond with other prisoners, even if they're a "grey-eyed huero from Fresno...ISO a firm woman in need of a down vato to share a lil of her time & thoughts," a BF "serving a 20 yr. sentence & looking for a special gentleman who can be everything to me," or a "former owner of Slave Master Tattooing" seeking "righteous partners for love & lucre...have thousands of designs & give good pen!")

Most of the magazine's skirmishes with prison officials, though, have to do with its unrelenting coverage of issues that concern prisoners the most--unsafe prisons, widespread use of prison labor by private companies, sentencing laws and cut-rate private prisons. "We're trying to show the other side of this craziness," Williams says. "The administrators don't want to hear about it. It goes against their goals and objectives."

Williams says he's hired new editors and writers in an effort to "get rid of some of the aversion" prison bureaucracies seem to have for the magazine. "It doesn't make sense to write a magazine that can't get into any places," he says.

At the same time, Williams says, Prison Life will continue to publish firsthand accounts of life on the inside--whether the DOC's reading committees approve or not.

"Inmates aren't stupid," the publisher says. "Some of the issues [they raise] are valid and some aren't. You got all types in there. But the system should listen. Otherwise, it's like saying their voice means nothing."

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