Known to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction as #170-590, Little Rock Reed is a convicted armed robber and a journalist with 10 years’ experience. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell which trade is more dangerous.
In May 1992, Reed was released on parole after serving 10 years at the maximum-security Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. While incarcerated, he reported extensively on Native American prisoner rights and continued after his release. Ohio authorities ordered Reed to stop publicly discussing prison conditions or his parole would be revoked. When he refused, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Reed promptly took it on the lam to New Mexico, but like any devoted journalist, he kept on writing. Among his stories was one predicting-a year before it occurred-a riot at SOCF due to forced racial integration within cells.
Last year, Reed convinced a New Mexico judge that his life would be in danger if he were returned to Ohio. In addition to refusing to extradite him, the judge agreed that the Ohio prison and parole authorities’ attempt to silence Reed was a violation of his constitutional rights.
Now safe from the law in his New Mexico mobile home, Reed continues to stick up for the rights of Native American prisoners across America. And he continues to send his articles to Prison News Service, a Toronto-based quarterly paper devoted exclusively to prison issues, written largely by cons and prison activists like Reed.
“Chain Gangs in Arizona: Barbarism Revisited,” “CSC Guard Has History of Brutality” and “Torture in Connecticut’s First Super-max” are typical PNS headlines. Opinion pieces often contain references to “Amerikkka,” “the injustice system” and “kkkops.” Sometimes there are service pieces on topics like safe sex practices or how to sterilize needles, and advice for the soon-to-be released. Eyewitness reports from prison correspondents, written in a tough, street-smart style, are regular elements. There’s even the occasional poem (“I always wonder why we let freedom fighters/ rot their lives away in some jail/or go down in murder-for-hire plot/rigged by the state”).
PNS‘s look is surprisingly polished, more like a college newspaper than an activist publication. Crisp layout and classic typography make easy to read, and tasteful line drawings by prison Picassos break up the grey columns of print. But there aren’t many newspapers, college or otherwise, that run articles averaging 2,000 words. PNS is obviously written by people with lots of time on their hands.
It’s not just the length of stories that makes PNS unique. In these get-tough-on-crime days, the public doesn’t care about prisoners or prison conditions. According to Peter Moon, who has covered prisons for The Globe and Mail, the public is massively ignorant of prisons, penology and criminology, fed, in a large part, by the media.” The mainstream media only cover prison issues during times of conflict, like riots or government inquiries. PNS fills in the gaps.
PNS was one of the first to report problems at Kingston’s Prison for Women, three years before the infamous use of male riot squad members to deal with a disturbance there. In the March/April 1991 issue, an anonymous article from an inmate offered recommendations to the P4W warden. Among her suggestions: replace male work supervisors, because they intimidated female prisoners who were previously abused by men. It was also PNS that carried a behind-the-scenes report of a violent 1993 prison riot at Little Rock Reed’s alma mater, the SOCF in Lucasville, Ohio.
Perhaps even more importantly, the paper gives a voice to people who are usually muzzled. A 1995 article by Robin “Zakia” Elliot detailed his experiences at Connecticut’s Northern Correctional Institution: “My first eight hours here were spent (4-pointed) chained naked to a metal bed, forced to urinate on myself while cold freezing air blew on me, all because I would not allow myself to be degraded by lying face down on a filthy dirty concrete floor, while fully chained-an order that served no legitimate penealogical [sic] purpose.” GivenPNS‘s subject matter and contributors, the paper’s editor is a surprise. Jim Campbell is a tall, gangly 46-year-old “collectivist-anarchist” who’s only been behind bars once: in 1986 he spent 24 hours in a Chicago jail after being arrested at a political demonstration.
His early years sound like the standard rap sheet for a child of the sixties. Campbell grew up on an isolated dairy farm in rural Ontario, just north of Orangeville, and left to study mathematics then political science at the University of Waterloo. As a student he became active in various leftist causes, including antiracism and labour rights, and eventually left school without a degree.
In 1976, looking for a change, Campbell moved to Vancouver and became interested in publishing while helping to produce an anarchist periodical called Open Road. Two years later he returned to Ontario and lived in a commune, where he started sending letters as a way to improve his writing skills. “I’d much rather learn to write by writing, instead of reading about writing,” says Campbell. The future editor of PNS quickly noticed that prisoners responded faster than other correspondents, and he soon had a list of regular prison pen pals.
While visiting Toronto, Campbell met a handful of other activists through the anarchist scene who were interested in prison reform, and they decided to reprint their jail mail. The group, taking on the tagline: “The only vehicle for prison reform is a bulldozer,” started Bulldozer magazine. In 1981 Campbell cut his hair, moved to the big city, and got a well-paying union job, which helped finance later copies of Bulldozer. In 1985, after eight issues, the magazine folded because Campbell was “personally and politically exhausted.” But he maintained contact with a few friends, including one in Marion Prison, Illinois.
Two years later, Campbell was contacted by this correspondent to help produce his newsletter, The Marionette. At first, Campbell combined The Marionette with a separate section of news from other prisons called PNS. By 1991, PNS had evolved into a regular paper assembled by the Bulldozer collective, a group that includes radical leftists, feminists, activists, former teen offenders, and ex-cons. Today, the paper has a circulation of 6,000 and is distributed to over 100 North American prisons.
Finding material for each issue is rarely a problem. “All need to do prison work is mailbox,” says Campbell, sitting in the small basement office of his dishevelled one bedroom row house in Toronto’s Cabbagetown district.
Each week he retrieves 60 to 80 letters, most of them handwritten on legal-sized foolscap, from a postal box. The majority are address changes and subscription requests, but Campbell also receives about 200 editorial submissions every two to three months. Of those, 20 to 30 are chosen by collective for publication in the next issue.
The seven members of the Bulldozer collective input and proofread the stories, then Campbell does the page layout on a friend’s Macintosh. Story ideas usually come from the prisoners, but Campbell will sometimes suggest topics for longtime contributors. And although Campbell says, “Working with anarchists and ex-prisoners is not the most stable political milieu,” the collective has missed producing only two issues since the paper’s inception.
Because of the large proportion of American subscribers-3,000 to 200 Canadian ones-PNS consists of mostly U.S. reports. “We got criticized for not having enough Canadian content, but we’ve tried to jump that up,” admits Campbell. But there are a lot more prisoners in the U.S.-1.4 million compared to 34,000 here-and they tend to be more politically interested, he adds. Prison politics are racially charged, and one of PNS‘s strengths is that it discusses volatile prison issues without alienating anyone. “People can read a lot of different viewpoints in PNS, and they can learn a lot, even if they don’t agree with each other,” he says.
Unlike mainstream publishers, Campbell doesn’t have to worry about offending advertisers. PNS doesn’t have any. The entire venture is self-supporting, and survives on subscriptions and donations. The biggest donor is Campbell himself.” PNS is the product of my union job,” he says. He estimates that he put $6,000 into the paper last year, almost two-thirds of the annual $10,000 budget. Time is his other big contribution. He spends, on average, 40 hours a week putting PNS together, on top of his full-time job as a meter reader for the City of Toronto. “People should work against the system as much as they work for it each week,” he jokes.
But other prison publications aren’t as lucky to have a generous sponsor like Campbell. Joint newsletters are generally self-published booklets, circulated among inmates at the institution where they are produced. But these newsletters often fold due to lack of finances, poor planning and personal squabbles.
They are also subject to censorship-all inmate-produced publications must be approved by the warden, and articles criticizing prison conditions or treatment by guards are rigidly vetted. “Ultimately, the warden can censor anything, any time and for any reason,” observes Patrick Rafferty, editor of Out of Bounds, a 500-circulation magazine he produces from British Columbia’s William Head Institution. “Many times the papers will hit on a touchy subject once too often and get closed down, never to be heard from again,” adds Keith Elliott, staff writer for Louisiana State Penitentiary’s highly regarded news magazine, The Angolite.
Although PNS has editorial freedom, its contributors are often behind bars, and they face problems not encountered by mainstream journalists. Zoltan Lugosi knows this from firsthand experience. He served seven years on drug-related charges at two maximum-security Ontario prisons. The one-time editor of Kingston Penitentiary’s newsletter, Telescope, received his high-school diploma in prison, where he also started writing for PNS. Since his release from Millhaven in September 1994, he’s kept on contributing.
Dressed head to toe in black like a villain from a spaghetti western, Lugosi becomes wildly animated when he talks about prison reporting. In a voice that sounds as if he’s smoked hand-rolled cigarettes from birth, he rumbles, “Prison journalists end up standing alone. Your name on stories with a controversial issue makes you a target.”
Lugosi once wrote an article about HIV risks in prison. One heroin-addicted inmate thought Lugosi had singled him out and voiced his displeasure. “When a guy in for murder threatens you, you tend to take it seriously,” says Lugosi without the hint of a smile. PNS correspondents often face threats from prison officials as well. “The weirdest thing that’s happened to me as a journalist is the retaliation by the guards and prisoncrats,” says John Perotti, an inmate at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. In October 1995, Perotti was awarded $10,200 after an Ohio jury agreed that guards violated his rights by retaliating against him for writing about prison conditions for outside publications, including PNS. Correspondents are often locked down more than 23 hours a day, or isolated in solitary confinement, which presents unique problems for a cell-block scribe. But even in the hole, prisoners gather information, write stories and file their articles with Campbell. Some pass “kites”-letters-to prisoners bringing them food. In general-population areas prisoners can talk to each other and see what’s going on. Writers also cultivate reliable contacts and seek out documents when possible. When working on an article, Little Rock Reed, for example, corresponds with prison officials to get their side of a story.
Access to writing materials can also be a problem. Zoltan Lugosi recalls using the rubber sole of his running shoe as an eraser because he wasn’t allowed eraser-tipped pencils. And Little Rock Reed was once in a control unit where pencils longer than three inches were banned because they could be used as weapons. He wrote his reports with a pencil stub on toilet paper.
Fact-checking stories is difficult since correspondents must confirm rumours, opinions and hearsay through the prison grapevine. Campbell admits that it’s tough to verify information from his reporters. Like any newspaper editor, he relies heavily on long-time contributors who document their sources and his own intuition and common sense.
The key to fact-checking is maintaining good contacts on the outside who have access to writers on the inside, he says. An article about a Kingston Penitentiary prison guard with a history of abusing prisoners, for instance, was confirmed by a lawyer working on a related prison case.
Like its contributors, PNS isn’t perfect. It doesn’t devote much space to women prisoners’ issues, although this could be because of the lack of submissions it receives from female writers. And occasionally, its hard-core political opinion pieces turn into literary drive-by shootings. In the September/October 1994 PNS, a militant black prisoner wrote an article accusing an alternative publication called North Coast XPress of racism. Some PNS readers felt the prisoner’s story was offensive and racist.
Professor Bob Gaucher, a University of Ottawa criminology professor and expert on the penal press, thought the article was an example of PNS getting caught up in its own politics. “If the prisoner had been a white person and had written that way, he would have been called a neo-Nazi and a racist. I thought it was terrible that Campbell allowed this kind of pejorative bullshit to go on.”
Nevertheless, Gaucher believes PNS fulfills an important role, and has even used the paper in his graduate-level classes. “It tends to be polemic, but it’s certainly as worthy of consideration as any dominant Canadian newspaper. The mainstream press refuses to look at these stories.” Which is exactly why Campbell keepsPNS going-to “educate and organize and agitate.” As he says, “If PNS can help a prisoner develop enough to avoid the vicious cycle of recidivism, then I think we’ve scored a real social victory.” Campbell plans to agitate for the next four years; when he reaches age 50, he’ll reconsider his position. Until then, he plans to print articles that are “interesting, informative and inspirational.”
For its writers and readers, PNS continues to arm them with knowledge instead of shanks. “In any newsletter put together by prisoners in institutions, the warden is the editor,” sighs PNS reporter Little Rock Reed, enjoying his freedom in New Mexico. “And whenever there’s an article written by the mainstream media about prisoners, it’s almost like they’re written by the warden too.”