Feb
01
2010

Voices from the Hellmouth

For convict journalists, freedom of the press is not so black and white

On January 31, 2009, John Dannenberg, Prison Legal News California correspondent, was released from California State Prison, San Quentin, where he had spent the past 23 years serving a life sentence for murder.

Although by Dannenberg’s recollection he has written more than 1,000 articles for PLN since he began working with the publication in 2000, the majority of his writing does not bear his name.

As a prisoner, anonymity was a condition of Dannenberg’s role as a journalist—something he learned with his first PLN story. “I had written something that was uncomplimentary about the guards’ union and somebody apparently on first watch was reading the mail and saw it,” said Dannenberg. “They dropped a kite on me and dropped it under the sergeant’s door saying that it had just been determined that I was a child molester and that my life was in danger.”

A “kite” is a bogus, anonymous note, intended—in this case—to get Dannenberg placed in protective custody or worse. (Child molesters, as the most universally despised inmates in a penitentiary, are often placed in protective custody to keep them being assaulted or killed by other prisoners.)

“I was called out the next morning on the speaker system to immediately report to the sergeant’s office. I took one look at the writing and what was written and I said, ‘Come on, this was obviously written by a cop, not an inmate.’” Dannenberg then dissected the note:“First of all, it’s written with a sharpened pencil—we don’t have pencil sharpeners, we can’t get a point that fine. Second, it’s written from edge to edge on the paper—that’s somebody who has a desk—we don’t have desks.” And I said, “Third, they misspelled my name”—in the way that it is officially misspelled in CDC [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] records. And fourth, the language was very stilted; obviously cop language—no prisoner would ever write that way.

And the sergeant agreed and I went and had a talk with the lieutenant afterward and he agreed and I talked with the captain and he agreed. And so finally I told the captain: “I don’t need to put up with this bullshit. I have a right to be free from harassment when writing in the media, so, with your permission, whenever I have to write something that might be less than complimentary, I’ll just use a pseudonym”—and so that’s what I did...or just not use a byline at all.

The story Dannenberg had written that inspired the potentially fatal note concerned the actions of California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) members in Blythe, Calif. The guards were upset that prisoners in an educational program were receiving free video feeds to community college classes, since their children and other community members had to pay to attend such classes, and they began to boycott fundraising activities for the prison, finally refusing to participate in the Blythe community blood drive.

“I wrote that up as saying they would rather see someone die—perhaps even a loved one—before they would let a prisoner get an education. That went over like a turd in a punchbowl,” says Dannenberg.

And so it went for Dannenberg for nearly a decade, filing stories for PLN without his byline on issues such as the quota system used by CCPOA parole officers to keep the prisons full and its relation to California’s unusually high 70 percent parolee recidivism rate—while stories relating to the amount of overtime worked by the state’s prison guards or the treatment of prisoners in distant states like Wisconsin were published under his name.

Still, Dannenberg said that no amount of intimidation or cajoling on the part of prison administration could remove his power to alert people both inside and outside of prison walls to issues affecting his world. He said that the right of free expression has the ability to empower a group of individuals struggling to find a human face and self-respect in light of the crimes they’ve committed.

At the core of the matter is that the prison system is failing both the society it has been established to serve and those it detains, Dannenberg said, fostering regression rather than the progress denoted by the use of words such as “corrections” or “rehabilitation” used to define such institutions:

There ain’t no such thing as “corrections,” and the bottom line is that it is not defined anywhere—at least not in California. No statute or regulation defines the word, and it’s my own personal thesis that if you can’t define it, then you can’t measure its progression or success. And if you can’t quantify or measure it, then you can’t incentify a positive result. And if you can’t incentify a positive result, then there ain’t never gonna be one.

Dannenberg’s story of enforced anonymity is far from unheard of in the world of U.S. prisons. Dannie Martin, convicted of two counts of bank robbery in 1980 and serving a 33-year federal sentence in Lompoc, Calif., began writing regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle in 1986, starting with a piece on the burgeoning HIV epidemic at Lompoc. But two years later, his article “The Gulag Mentality” (6/19/88) criticized the prison’s new warden. Martin was immediately sent to administrative segregation—what prisoners call “the hole”—and then shuffled off to a federal prison outside Phoenix, far from his editor and his readers.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at that time informed Martin and his editor at the Chronicle, Peter Sussman (who now sits on PLN’s board of directors), that they were in violation of the “prisoner byline rule,” which states that no federal prisoner can write as a compensated, “byline” journalist or “act as a reporter.”

Martin and the Chronicle filed suit against BOP, but in 1990, a federal court upheld the rule, arguing that the unique security needs of a prison superseded the First Amendment rights of would-be convict journalists, as well as those of publications that chose to publish their work. Martin continued to write for the Chronicle—without a byline or compensation—until his release.

Mark Jordan, a prisoner in the maximum security federal prison in Florence, Colo., confronted the same issue in April 2001, when he began to write a series of essays critical of BOP for Off! magazine, published through the State University of New York at Binghamton. After prison staff discovered Jordan’s byline in copies of the publication mailed to prisoners, administrative action was taken against Jordan under the “prison byline rule.” Jordan agreed to publish in the future under the pseudonym Josef Shevitz.

In September 2001, Jordan, using the agreed-upon byline, published another article in Off! (Fall/01) critical of the DNA Backlog Elimination Act of 2000. But prison staff nevertheless took administrative action against him under the byline rule. Jordan sued BOP and in 2005, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals found that the rule was indeed unconstitutional.

Paul Wright, editor and co-founder of Prison Legal News, is no stranger to the contradictory nature of the corrections system. In 1990, Wright (with a fellow convict, Ed Mead) started the publication as a small newsletter with a readership of about 75 prisoners in the Washington state prison system. Wright was released in 2004, having served 17 years of a 25-year murder sentence. Today PLN has around 7,000 subscribers; true to its roots, 95 percent of PLN copy is written by current and former prisoners. Wright recalled:

When I had first started Prison Legal News, I had written an article exposing the racist beating of black prisoners by prison guards at the Clallam Bay corrections center, and I was infracted for supposedly telling lies about [prison] staff. Mind you, this was something I saw with my own eyes, it was like the old Richard Pryor joke: “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” And so prison officials said my eyes were lying.

For his reporting on the beatings, Wright was sent to the “hole.”

Wright defines the work of PLN (which bears the motto “Dedicated to Protecting Human Rights”) as “advocacy journalism,” and the paper often goes to bat for prisoners’ First Amendment rights in the courtroom.

And PLN First Amendment litigation has not been exclusive to prison writers trying to get word to the outside world. On October 8, PLN filed suit against the Virginia Department of Corrections for prohibiting PLN in its prisons on the grounds that it is “detrimental” to their security, discipline and rehabilitative efforts.

Wright says other states have found different pretexts for barring PLN. North Carolina, for example, contends that it contains advertisements for contraband items, such as pen pal programs. However, the New York Times contains ads for liquor, cars and travel—none of which are allowed in prisons, says Wright—but it isn’t banned in these institutions.

PLN has successfully sued some two dozen state prison systems for such censorship. These bans are an attempt to deprive prisoners of one of the few legal resources available to them, says Wright; PLN serves as an educational tool for prisoners who may have a grievance but who have neither knowledge of the law nor legal representation.

“One of our goals is to provide people in prison with information they can use to help themselves,” says Wright:

The needs are enormous in the prison system and realistically, there really is no help coming any time soon for prisoners....There is no cavalry coming.

The reality is that if you are a prisoner and you get beaten or raped by guards in New York or California, chances are I can probably find a lawyer to help you. If it happens in Oklahoma or Texas, you’re pretty much screwed. If they kill you, I might be able to find a lawyer for your estate. That’s the reality of it.... In most of the country, most of the time, if you’re still sucking air, you don’t have sufficient damages to warrant a lawyer taking the case.

This dysfunctional system of “corrections,” marked by extraordinary apathy to the plights of prisoners, can only be maintained if prisoners are faceless, dehumanized entities, says Wright—and therein lies the motive for the enforced anonymity marking writing careers such as Dannenberg’s.

“Prison officials, politicians, have a vested interest in the notion that people can’t change. If you look at any great historical crime, whether it’s genocide, mass imprisonment or [mass] deportation...the big thing is that they’re all being done to ‘other’ people; ‘Hey, they’re different from us, they’re subhuman, they somehow merit this,’” says Wright. “That’s why there’s been this big clamp down on prisoners as writers, prisoners as musicians, prisoners as painters...anything that humanizes or puts a human face on prisoners.”

Beau Hodai is a freelance journalist.