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Thursday, April 3, 2003 02:20 pm

Prison Diaries

Zines tell the inside stories

Prison is a good place to get some writing done. In the 14th century, Marco Polo recorded his Travels in an Italian cell. Martin Luther King moved a nation with his "Letter From A Birmingham Jail." Nelson Mandela dictated his autobiography on Robben Island, hiding the papers in a buried can.

During his 16-year, on-again, off-again affiliation with the Illinois Department of Corrections, Ron Campbell matured from delinquent armed robber to jailhouse essayist. For the last half of his stay, Campbell was the editor of Constipation, a sardonic, insightful zine that carried his words beyond prison walls.

The high point of Constipation's ten-issue run was "Vacation Getaway Offer," a mock ad satirizing the state's drive to fill prison beds. Resort packages included "Time Out For Tamms," "Ecstasy in East Moline," and "Mixin' in Dixon (coed!)."

"For those without adequate funds, consult with your local public defender's office for availability," Campbell jibed. "In most cases, those without funds can get in quickly, and stay longer!"

Campbell always kept journals in prison, but didn't start writing Constipation until 1993, after striking up a correspondence with the Seattle-based program Books to Prisoners, which mailed him novels, political philosophy, and zines. Reading three books a week, he embraced anarchism, and decided the world needed to hear from a man living every minute under the heel of the system. While imprisoned in Stateville, he typed his screeds in the library, cut them out with a razor, glued them to 8 1/2-by-11 sheets, and mailed them to a man in Seattle, who photocopied them and sent them out on the prison grapevine.

"I felt that it was important that people realize I'm just a regular person, under different circumstances," says the gangly, bespectacled, six-foot seven-inch ex-con, who now lives in the Chicago neighborhood of West Rogers Park. "I laugh, I cry. I felt there were a lot of misconceptions about prisoners. I'm not a talker. I write what I feel. It gave me the feeling that people would actually get to know me."

Constipation ceased publication when Campbell was freed in 1997. It was a short hiatus. He got a job in construction, but lost it--along with his freedom--when he stole the company van. Sentenced to 47 months, he was sent to maximum-security Menard, where he was locked down 22 hours a day. He spent the time "either reading or writing," and revived his zine.

This time Constipation was published by South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, which is headquartered in the family room of south suburban anarchist and "prison abolitionist" Anthony Rayson. Rayson, a tollbooth attendant and the son of the late liberal state representative Leland H. Rayson, also turns out Tenacious, Our Netherworld, and Thought Bombs, which are sold in underground bookstores and mailed to prisoners throughout America. Banned from the Internet, and limited to a few phone calls a week, prisoners languish in the Postal Era. Words on paper are the main form of communication with the free world.

"This is the samizdat press of America," declares Rayson, comparing prison zines to the mimeographed manuscripts passed around by Soviet dissidents. "This is so underground the underground doesn't want to deal with it. Prisoners are demonized. They're the untermenschen."

Prisoners and anarchists seem to form a mutual admiration society. Prisoners would love to abolish the government that locked them up; anarchists romanticize outlaws.

"Almost any anarchist zine is going to have writing by prisoners," says Campbell. "The number of prisoners doing writing has skyrocketed, and I think this is the reason."

Solitary confinement deepened Campbell's reflective nature. Constipation's Menard issues contain some self-absorbed writing, such as "Personal Prisons," in which Campbell flayed himself for "the years of my life I've wasted within these walls--I've been told more than once that I'm doing life on the installment plan."

But Campbell also wrote about his conflicts with the Northsiders, a "racist bonehead" gang that tried to recruit him, agitated for a recycling program, and penned an editorial--"The Plug-In Guard''--suggesting TV be banned from prison.

"I've seen first-hand how it turns intelligent, lively, interesting people into dozed automatons," Campbell wrote. "Books collect dust, conversations are virtually non-existent."

Campbell only caught flak for his writing once, when the authorities "told me not to spread any propaganda in the prison." But, says IDOC spokesman Brian Fairchild, inmates have their First Amendment rights. Prisons can't quash literature unless it's pornographic "or anything that would be a threat to the security of the institution, such as an article on how to defeat handcuffs, or manufacture prison hooch."

Sadly for prison writing, but happily for Campbell, Constipation's latest run ended last year, with his latest parole. He swears he's retired this time: "I'm burned out. The younger crowd can have that."

Campbell has had plenty of successors, in both crime and penmanship. In the past decade, Illinois' prison population has increased 36 percent, to 45,000.

A few of them are writing. South Chicago ABC Zine Distro now has over 150 prison titles out there. Their latest is The Railroading of Chicago Native Son by Richard M. Flood, an ironworker and ex-Latin King who's doing ten years in Menard for aggravated battery. Flood's 80-page pamphlet is the classic prison story: he tells of his tough upbringing on the streets of Humboldt Park--the son of a "drunken Irish ironworker" and a mother he would often see "coming out of or going into some neighborhood tavern, always with a different man." He started cutting school at age eight and was adopted into the "psychological family" of a gang. He insists the charges against him are b.s.

Flood's zine contains a letter from his union president, declaring him "dependable and capable," a statement to the Will County judge who sentenced him, arguing that any husband would have stabbed three thugs who attacked his wife at a pay phone. (All presented in their native typeface, so the book looks like a collage.) But Flood became a prison activist during a previous sentence for armed robbery, so he possesses a political language far more sophisticated than most inmates. How many cons would title an autobiographical sketch "The Re-Birth of Humanity in a Pathological Capitalistic Society," and fill it with quotations from John Dewey and Sir Walter Scott? Only a stone anarchist, educated in public libraries and prison cells.

"It was in these dark dungeons that somehow I rose above the insanity--mine, as well as others--and realized that it was up to me to make the change," Flood wrote. "I had always enjoyed reading and was fortunate enough to have someone I knew from my neighborhood working in the hole as a runner. He introduced me to Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Guevara, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, Buddha and a host of others."

While serving his armed robbery, Flood wrote articles for Socialism and Democracy magazine and Thought Bombs. During his brief freedom, in 2000 and 2001, he and Rayson talked about collaborating on a newsletter aimed at educating gangbangers. Once Flood went back in, Rayson put together Railroading, which was released last Veterans' Day.

"Ever since I remember Rich, he was always real intelligent, reading," says his wife, Rebecca, who lives in Crete with their five children. "He's always had a lot to say. Putting it in words came in prison."

The zine "means a lot to Richard," Rebecca says. "One of Richard's things that keeps him going, his writings that are published. They give him hope that people are listening to him. Richard gets letters back because of the zines. Letters are real important to a prisoner. That is their only communication."

Flood, who doesn't watch TV or read the papers, has been on Rayson's free zine list since the 1990s. They're his news source, his soapbox, and his political network.

"I build relationships with the people who make these zines," he says. "I like to think we're comrades in a common cause."

Prison zines are more than just paper confessionals. They have a political purpose: recruiting the next generation of revolutionaries. Kristen Brazelton read her first zine in the segregation unit at the Decatur Women's Correctional Center. A fellow inmate handed it to her. Thrilled by the bold anarchist rhetoric--someone else out there thought America was a big fraud!--she wrote to Rayson, asking for more. Soon they were corresponding. Brazelton contributed a half-page essay to Railroading, in which she declared, "We live in a world of hypocrites and fascist pigs--the Department of Corrections is just another money-making scheme to help overflow the pockets of those who are already rich."

In an interview by mail, Brazelton wrote that "zines are important to me because I know that every story in it is true and that the people have all been victims of the same system that was supposed to protect us. I share every zine I get and encourage [other prisoners] to contribute to them by writing to Anthony."

Brazelton got out of prison in December, after serving a three-year sentence for forging checks. Zines gave her a political philosophy. Now that she's free, she wants to become a lawyer. She will devote her life exposing the prison system, and to spreading the truth she learned by reading photocopied tracts, composed by America's most unwanted.

"I plan to speak to every newspaper, every radio station and news station," she wrote. "They will never silence me again."

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