Reading Between the Bars

In Canada and the U.S., zines are thriving in an unlikely place: prison

by Ashleigh Gaul

For most zinesters and small presses, editorial meetings probably don’t start with the removal of handcuffs and a security guard’s demand to empty the pockets and take off the bra. But for Sara Falconer and David Gilbert, collaborators on international prisoner zine 4StruggleMag and calendar Certain Days, sometimes they do.

It’s early September and Falconer has invited me to sit in on an impromptu editorial meeting with Gilbert, a maximum security prisoner at Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York. (Gilbert, a founding member of The Weather Underground, is serving 75 years for participating in a 1981 Brinks truck robbery that left one guard, two policemen and an ally in the Black Liberation Army dead.)

Due to passport troubles and a few wrong turns on the route from Toronto to Auburn, we’re a-day-and-a-half late. Gilbert, like most North American prisoners, has no email or Internet access, and since we’re not on his list of phone contacts, we have no way of letting him know. When we finally get through the security checks, a wall of leisurely, lunch-eating wardens and an infrared chamber where our hands are stamped with glow-in-the-dark serial numbers, we enter a world of direct, physical communication. In the visiting room, couples sit kitty corner, touch each other’s cheeks, play cards and bounce distracted babies on their knees.

I realize that to enter a prison today is to step back in time. In prison there are no blogs, no Facebook accounts, no instant virtual connections.  Prisoners connect through the analogue world of face-to-face, hard copy, or not at all. No wonder Gilbert and Falconer oversee a publication that regularly distributes editions of 40 pages or more to a subscriber list of 500 and an estimated readership of several times that. In prison, zines are thriving.

When Gilbert arrives, gaunt and in bifocals, I ask him what he did while awaiting our arrival. Flustered, he pauses. “I would have pulled out the typewriter, but I knew you must be on your way….” And trails off.

In prison, zines are not nostalgic, fey or artsy-fartsy, although they often feature art and some of them are quite beautiful. Between prisoners, who are generally forbidden to write directly to each other, zines are still a basic and practical communication tool. And for better or for worse, as both Canadian and American prisons continue to cut services and communication privileges to a growing inmate population, the need for prison zines likely to grow.

Meet Anthony Rayson. Take a bus to Crete, a suburb of south Chicago, and visit him in his woodlot bungalow with a wall of handmade protest signs (“Say no to the Crete penitentiary,” “Say no to the Crete airport”) spiking the front lawn. You will leave with garbage bags full of prisoner zines from his 700+ title collection. Since 1994, Rayson, an ex-toll booth operator who “didn’t do a damn thing in there besides make zines and organize my booth,” has been writing, editing, hand-copying, hand-stapling and personally addressing tens to hundreds to thousands of zines to inmates in every state except Alaska and some Canadian provinces — free of charge.


Aside from a high school fascination with the student press and an early stab at his own newsletter in 1974, Rayson knew little about home publishing until he created his own anarchist zine, ThoughtBombs, in 1990. “But I wanted to collaborate,” he says, “so I sent it around, looking for some like-minded thinkers and writers. And the more I reached out, the more I realized that the deeper, more serious thinkers were in prison. And then I meticulously went through Factsheet Five and Zine World and noticed that a lot of times, the better letters were from prisoners — and a lot of them had addresses, so I started writing to them.”

Soon, Rayson was getting “incredible manuscript after incredible manuscript” spilling out of his study and into the family living room, attic and garage. Rayson’s collection includes practical guides, such as directories for gay, lesbian and Native American support groups and release packages for newly freed prisoners, comic books, reprinted essays on political movements and figures such as the Black Panthers and George Jackson, book-length interviews with some of his more prolific collaborators, a three-part allegory of prison life called Last Act of the Circus Animals (modeled after Animal Farm but written like a Socratic dialogue), Rayson’s own zine on the importance of zines as an educational tool, and even a guide for starting your own zine distro in prison. He started printing a yearly catalogue and distributing that to prisoners with their zine shipments. U.S. prisons allow inmates to receive most literature directly from a publisher, so Rayson bought a $15 address stamp and called himself a publisher. Once inside, the zines follow their own distribution networks from prisoner to prisoner, through bars, inside distributors, or placed between the books in thriller and Harlequin-bloated prison libraries (where libraries exist at all).

But as much as Rayson loves his collection — he clearly revels in amazing me, asking me to pick a genre and rushing to a section of unmarked spines to pull out an exact title — he says the rawness of prisoner writing is what keeps him passionate. “When you work with prisoners,” he says, “everything is from the ground up. This is what’s going on at [the] bottom of America, told from the people who are living there. So it’s got a unique clarity and plainness of language. Whatever phoniness is, it’s not there. These people can’t spell their way out of a paper bag but they have a lot of important things to say.”

Though Rayson offers paid subscriptions to readers outside of prison and has donated much of his collection to Chicago’s DePaul University library, he doesn’t see a huge market for his catalogue in the free world. “It’s an underground thing and that’s where it’s going to stay,” he says. “Prisoners like my zines because I’m consistent; not fly-by-night. And if you can pass muster with the most cynical bunch of people in the world, which is American prisoners — if you can get their confidence and respect, you know you must be doing something right. But it takes a Herculean effort.”

Gilbert and Falconer can attest to the enormous energy a prison publication requires. Soliciting all submissions by snail mail makes for a far-sighted publishing schedule, and Gilbert says he’s missed opportunities to write for more than one mainstream magazine because the editor’s request came days before the deadline. “They can’t understand that trying to get something accomplished in prison is like running a marathon with hurdles,” he says. “Slow.”

Falconer, who works with free editors in Toronto (her home base) and Montreal, and imprisoned ones in the U.S., searches for different metaphors: “Herding cats? Goat rodeo?” Twice a year, she and her Canadian co-editors tour through three New York prisons to meet Gilbert and their collaborators, Herman Bell and Robert Seth Hayes (two former Black Panthers, both separately arrested in 1973 for the murders of New York City policemen). Together, they produce an annual calendar Certain Days that features writing and art by imprisoned political activists. Falconer also founded 4StruggleMag in 2002 with prisoner and convicted bomber Jaan Laaman. For both the calendar and 4Struggle, prisoners suggest themes, content and writers to solicit, and outside collaborators take the editing, design, bookkeeping and production duties.

If it sounds more regimented than Rayson’s pamphlets-with-staples operation, that’s because Rayson’s more focussed on process — getting prisoners writing and giving them something to read — than impressing readers on the outside. Even though he and Falconer both work through Anarchist Black Cross, a prisoner support group inspired by Russian emigrés who organized New York fundraisers for political prisoners in Tsarist Russia, their aims are quite different. Falconer and Laaman originally envisioned 4StruggleMag as a website, not a zine, and it was only after Falconer says “we realized we had this huge interest from prisoners who wanted to read it and write for it” that they printed hard copies as well. She adds, “I started getting letters from prisoners saying ‘I just got the new 4Struggle,’ and they were coming from institutions in cities that we don’t even send the zine to. Despite the physical barriers, it gets into a lot of hands.”

Still, both the calendar and 4Struggle focus on outside politics, events and people, and editors solicit outside donations. So, rather than cramming as much content onto each page as humanly possible, 4Struggle and Certain Days benefit from a layout editor, full-colour pages and heavy-stock paper. “We’ve come a long way, design-wise,” says Falconer, “and part of that was explicitly realizing that people are not going to engage with material that looks like we’ve photocopied it ourselves terribly — basically what everyone was doing in zines for the longest time.” Though punks and activists were comfortable with the format, she noted in her Masters thesis on prisoner media that “even hardened anarchists gravitated toward the glossy materials on our table rather than the photocopied flyers when we fundraised.”

Falconer, Gilbert and Laaman are also choosier about the writers they publish. Many are jailed activists with publicized liberation campaigns, like Gilbert and Laaman themselves. Besides the obvious benefit of added exposure, Falconer says, “I wanted to show that when people go to jail for political reasons, they don’t become martyrs. They’re still really committed to their struggle; they’re still reading the newspapers, they’re still watching the wider world and trying to analyze it too.”

Gilbert, who subscribes to the daily New York Times and distributes it through his own chain of borrowers, agrees:  “it’s not easy to write in here” — that is, at a table or Rubbermaid tub dragged to his bedside, “A lot of noise and a lot of tension get in the way of concentration,” he says. “But writing is the only way I feel I can contribute to what’s going on outside.”

Prison administrations understand the therapeutic potential of prisoner writing and publishing — or at least they used to, and for a time, governments on five continents supported the International Penal Press (IPP), an exchange network and also a censoring and standard-setting body, run jointly by prisoner editors, institutional administrators and, occasionally, outside volunteers. IPP members could trade content and distributed to prisoners and paid subscriber lists of up to 1,500 households.

And prisons paid for it. Though prison-sponsored publishing officially began in the late 19th century with the New York broadsheet Summary, its Canadian equivalent didn’t appear until 1949, when the federal government made attempts at vocational rehabilitative programs. Prisons organized sports and recreational committees, as well as editorial staff who often worked on in-house printing presses.

The experiment was short-lived — most federal prisons in Canada had stopped financing prisoner publications by 1968 — but the zines that did persist into the ’80s and ’90s were tightly designed and surprisingly irreverent.  A 1973 issue of B.C. prison monthly Tarpaper fabricates a letter to the editor from then-Parole Board Chair Earl Hastings:

“The real news in Canadian prisons is that there are thousands of men in here who have long since paid for their crimes — by any criteria. The Chairman of the Parole Board has said that 50% of men in Canadian prisons should not be there. Then he flies back to Ottawa and reduces the amount of paroles to be granted. The real news is that this is a penitentiary where vast chunks of men’s lives are being torn off. This fact is well-forgotten by many in the face of architectural cosmetics, paper programs, and euphemistic terminology that prevails.”

A cartoon in the same issue depicts one guard shooting another in the next sniper tower while two prisoners look on. One prisoner turns to the other and says, “It seems they can’t agree on how we are to be rehabilitated.”

Of course, with jokey pseudonyms like “Felonius Convictus” and features modelled on schmaltzy ’60s humour magazines, it’s clear the Canadian penal press didn’t always reach a representative convict demographic, and only rarely did publications — such as the Kingston Prison for Women’s journal Tightwire (1973-1994) — address aboriginal, multicultural or gender issues. Tightwire printed its last issue as the Kingston Prison for Women closed in 1993, and the IPP disbanded soon after.

4Struggle and Certain Days collaborator Karen Suurtamm says getting zines into Canadian prisons today is harder than ever, which is part of the reason she and Falconer work mainly with Americans. “The Canadian system has a happier face,” she says. “But it’s way more bureaucratic. In Canada, it’s very difficult to send people literature and a lot of prisons just don’t allow it whatsoever, even if it’s direct from a publisher.” Instead, prisoners must order their reading material from a central commissary or traveling bookmobile. And Suurtamm says “the commissary would never take our stuff.” (For a prisoner perspective, read G20 protester Alex Hundert’s three-part blog post on the dismal state of one Ontario prison library, written from the Central North Correctional Centre.) Falconer, who started 4StruggleMag while pursuing a Master’s degree in alternative media studies at Concordia University in Montreal, presents a comforting alternative for why Canadian prison zines have never thrived independently and likely never will: “In Canada we have different challenges. People don’t usually spend as long in prison. They’ll go back and forth to jail for like six months at a time, but they don’t settle in like Americans do. Unfortunately in the States,” she adds, “people are serving 30 year sentences for random property crimes, so they have this long period of time to settle in and start reading us.”

Vikki Law, outside editor of one of the only longstanding women’s prisoner zines, Tenacious, notes that either way, when prisoners get their hands on zines and other literature, positive things happen. She started sending books to prisoners in 1996, after a high school career spent riding the bus back and forth to Riker’s Island, visiting friends. “And I noticed that all of them — none of whom had ever picked up a book on the outside — started reading. And they all got their GEDs and started going to college and getting bachelor’s degrees. For me, that was an eye-opener to the transformative power of the word.”

Women prisoners, like Canadians, tend to serve shorter prison terms, but that doesn’t stop them from contributing poetry, drawings and stories to Tenacious. Women tend to be harder to solicit than men, though. “I have to really develop relationships with them first,” she says. “A lot of women in prison have grown up in social conditions that go a long way toward guaranteeing they don’t feel like they’re entitled to have a voice or have something worthwhile to say.” In contrast to Rayson and Falconer’s material, the pieces in Tenacious are more abstract, poetic, visual, often untitled and less rant-laden.

Still, given that men far outnumber women in prison, Tenacious’ steady subscriber count of 75-100 is impressive. And for her subscribers and contributors in solitary confinement, it’s the only conversational outlet. “To talk, one contributor told me they have to yell through their cell doors at each other,” says Law. “I’m sure that doesn’t promote a lot of meaningful discussion. For those women,” she adds, “and in an increasingly punitive prison setting, Tenacious is a lifeline.”

Literally. Rayson devotee and in-again-out-again prison zinester Mark Neiweem argues zines can save lives. “When I first get in [Chicago’s Cook County Jail], a lot of people don’t know what the hell I am,” Neiweem says. “I’m white; I’m covered in tattoos but I’m not gang-affiliated, and all these black urban gang members, they don’t really like me. But then I start giving them literature that makes sense to them. So in the day room, we stay away from each other, but then they come to me on the sly and they’re like, ‘Hey, do you have any more of this, do you have any more of that?’ And it’s the same thing with the queer prisoners.”

I ask Gilbert whether he thinks zines are capable of crossing long-standing racial and social divides behind bars. He wrinkles his nose sceptically but concedes that spreading literature starts conversations in prison, and that conversations can be more peaceful than silence. He tells me about a technological development threatening to destroy that conversation in his own prison: television. He says in New York State most of the maximum security prisons are finally starting to bring in TVs, and “people are reading less, talking less and passing stuff around less.” He says there was a period of time, just after he arrived in 1981, when there was a high level of political consciousness in most prisons. Now, as the pages of 4Struggle mourn the loss of a new hippie or revolutionary each month, Gilbert says “It’s getting harder and harder to find young activists from in here.”

With 20 minutes left for visiting hours, the one white page the guards allowed us is overfull. Throughout the afternoon, Gilbert, Falconer and I covered it in pencil and black crayon scratchings. The other two discuss how to get the calendar to Gilbert now that Auburn has introduced new size restrictions on mail, and it’s agreed they’ll cut it in two and mail the pages in separate envelopes.

Gilbert asks Falconer to Google a few things for him, including an explanation for why his eyeball feels watery and obstructed, the guard announces that visiting hours are over and the room erupts in a chaos of kosher hugs. Falconer and I are herded back into the infrared chamber. I look back at Gilbert, who faces ahead with all the other prisoners, one to a table. In a minute, the guards will escort him back to his cell where he’ll push his table back to his bedside, mount his typewriter and be free to write again.

Ashleigh Gaul gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers’ Reserve Program.


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