Review by Bill Jeffcott
"I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right. Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong." This is the opening statement in Dannie M. Martin's first book, Committing Journalism. Joining him in his effort is Peter Y. Sussman, a long time editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's"Sunday Punch" section.
Dannie Martin, also known as "Red Hog" throughout the prison system for his red hair and long past dispute over a pork chop, was serving a 33 year sentence at the United States Federal Penitentiary in Lompoc, California. And during this course of time, Sussman published a compelling report on AIDS in the federal prison system written by Martin. And with a powerful public response, this behind the walls prison journalist and free world newspaper editor, teamed up and went on to publish over fifty editorals over the next several years.
Martin, a self educated man, is well known for his alcohol/drug abuse troubles and his fighting abilities in his younger years. And in his book, he takes you down the road of hard knocks for a variety of offenses which has cost him several years of life behind prison walls.
However, in 1976 Martin's social worker Diane Osland, the daughter of a journalist, pressed Martin to fill his life long desire to write. It was from this point on, that the seed was planted.
Osland describes "Red Hog" as a powerful person in the prison system. "He took no shit from anyone, but he exercised his power without being abusive. In fact, he was the protector of the weakest, the frightened-younger, and the frail older cons. He treated people with dignity, and not out of fear."
In the 80's, Martin's life began to come together. His heroin addiction had subsided, he established important ties in the community and his crafted skill as a journalist had began to be put to good use.
What follows is a two-fold story. One of Martin and how he veiws life from behind prison walls and razor wire and how his editorials affected the public. One of Sussman, who became, Martin's partner, colleague, friend and when necessary Martin's personal defender when the Federal Bureau of Prisons took steps to take away his First Amendment Right.
In his editorials, Martin describes his experiences with the swelling prison population in this country. He talks about racism, inadequate health care, petty bureaucratic harassment, convict sex, the good and bad side of prison guards and the dissapearing folkways of the convict.
Martin shares his sometimes sad and sometimes humorous stories of the vast array of unique characters he meets along the way. One case in particular, Martin writes about Kevin Sherbondy, a young man of twenty-three, who was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison under the Career Criminal Statute for "possession" of a firearm. Sherbondy owned the gun soley for decorative purposes. Martin's stories about Sherbondy in Sussman's weekly column, "Sunday Punch" brought so much attention to Sherbondy's case that the Ninth Circuit court of appeals overturned his sentence, and Sherbondy became a free man.
Meanwhile, Sussman tells his side of the story as he and a team of legal experts come to Martin's defense. At issue here are the rights of prisoners to express themselves freely and publicly and a controversy which received substained national attention, including coverage on ABC's Nightline.
Committing Journalism explores the Federal Prison system in explicit detail. Martin and Sussman send a clear message that it is essential that all outsiders know what goes on behind the walls of our nation's prisons.
Martin is not hypocritical. He admits that prison is meant to be for some, as with himself back in 1980. However, at a far fewer rate than we are warehousing prisoners today. He writes: "Sowing prisons means reaping convicts. It's another form of deficit spending. If the authorities can't control drugs with existing prisons, I wonder why they say that building more will help solve the drug problem. That's like saying that building more hospitals will stop disease."
For me, Committing Journalism has brought back vivid memories, as I too have served time behind the gray walls and razor wire during my one hundred month tour with the Federal Bureau of prisons. I can relate to most all of "Red Hogs" writings. I have lived, learned and seen these experiences myself and I'm very well aware that there are many problems that exist within our country's prison system today. I highly recommend the writings of "Red Hog" for anyone who is unfortunate enough to be incarcerated. It's not only a "must read," but, I'm sure you'll find it beneficial and educational as well, regardless of where you may be serving your time.
To those of you out there in our "free society," there's not a shadow of a doubt you won't be finding Committing Journalism to be a dramatic read as Martin and Sussman take you through our complexic criminal justice system. This is a first-class description of life behind bars, media censorship, the prisoner, his keeper and to all that live, work and die in our nation's prisons.
W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.
SBN: 0-393-03574-3 PMB 700,
Yankton, South Dakota 57078
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