AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 1996

The Tense World of Jail Journalism   

By Dominic Ali
Dominic Ali is a freelancer based in Ontario, Canada.     

Known as #167712 to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, John Perotti is a convicted armed robber and a journalist with Prison News Service. Sometimes it's difficult to tell which occupation is more dangerous.

Unlike reporters from most news organizations who strive for professional distance, journalists for PNS wield their pens as if they were shanks. This Toronto-based quarterly newspaper is devoted exclusively to prison issues, and most of its writers are incarcerated in America's toughest prisons.

While some might question whether PNS is a legitimate journalistic institution, it is legitimate enough for the thousands of inmates who depend on it for information. "Chain Gangs in Arizona: Barbarism Revisited" and "Torture in Connecticut's First Super-Max" are typical PNS headlines. Opinion pieces sometimes read like literary drive-by shootings, containing references to "Amerikkka," "the injustice system" and "kkkops." A typical 20-page issue includes service pieces on topics such as safe sex, advice for the soon-to-be- released and eyewitness reports from prison correspondents written in street-wise style.

PNS is surprisingly polished, resembling a college newspaper more than an activist publication. Well-organized layouts and tasteful drawings by prison Picassos make it an easy read. Articles average about 2,000 words, but then again PNS is meant to be written, and read, by people with lots of time on their hands.

PNS writers employ traditional news gathering methods whenever possible, cultivating trustworthy contacts and using documented sources to the best of their abilities given their circumstances. Former armed robber and PNS reporter Little Rock Reed, for example, uses the Freedom of Information Act to get information about legal reforms and routinely writes to prison officials to balance out a story.

Because cellblock scribes are often locked down for 23.5 hours a day or isolated in solitary confinement, they encounter obsta- cles rarely experienced by mainstream reporters. One PNS writer resorted to using the rubber sole of his 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 on toilet paper with a pencil stub.

But even in solitary confinement, prisoners still manage to file their articles. Some pass "kites"--letters--underneath cell doors or to prisoners bringing them food. Also, prison journalists have to deal with their readers on a face-to-face basis. If a reader doesn't like an article, writers receive far more criticism than an impolite letter to the editor. Zoltan Lugosi, a member of the editorial collective that produces the newspaper, served seven years on drug-related charges at two maximum-security prisons and once wrote about heroin use among prisoners. One addicted inmate thought he'd been singled out. "When a guy in for murder threatens you, you tend to take it seriously," Lugosi says.

PNS correspondents say they often face threats from prison officials as well. PNS contributor Perotti was awarded $10,200 in 1995 after an Ohio jury found that guards violated his rights when they retaliated against him for writing about prison conditions by selectively enforcing prison rules. But it's difficult to measure just how much of a threat PNS' influence is considered to be by corrections officials, since none contacted for this article would acknowledge its existence.

In its eight years of production, subscriptions have grown by more than 30 per week. The Spring 1996 issue boasted a circulation of about 6,000, and was distributed in about 150 prisons. Free for prisoners and devoid of advertising, PNS survives strictly on subscriptions and donations.

The only prison newspaper with such a noticeably political agenda in the American prison system, PNS is produced by five volunteers "on the outside" who make up the Bulldozer collective, a name derived from the paper's motto: "The only vehicle for prison reform is a bulldozer." The current masthead includes an ethnically diverse assortment of political activists--some of whom have never been imprisoned--and ex-prisoners. "Working with anarchists and ex-prisoners," jokes PNS Editor Jim Campbell, "is not the most stable political milieu."