The Pen Is Mightier Than the Pen

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.

"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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