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Breaking Free: Prisoners Find Voice in Zines

"I swore that this time, I wouldn’t allow you to destroy me, to steal my life no matter what you did to me. Somewhere along the way, I found that I wasn’t a victim. I would be a survivor, a fighter. I would see my son again. I would enjoy a summer day, a cool winter night or the spring rain. I would bask in the sunshine with my lover. I would defeat you, beat you at your own game, and teach others how to survive and fight you." — Lee Savage, from Tenacious

Lee Savage was in prison for the third time, months into a mind-numbing stay in solitary confinement at the Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Florida, when she took to writing. During this stint in isolation, she says, “things started up in me.” She penned fiery essays and poems, tightly knitting the political and the personal: anarchism and classism, her criminal history of abuse and addiction, her experience coming out as a lesbian, and her suicide attempt during her first stint at Lowell.

Her work found a place in a number of zines—self-published, self-assembled booklets that reflect the whims and desires of the person putting them together. In the case of prisoner zines, that usually means giving men and women behind bars a voice, and a lifeline to their peers and the outside world. They’re typically distributed to and read by prisoners themselves, but a handful of copies find their way to prison activists, legal professionals, and members of the alternative media.

Savage has been out for seven months. She’s trying to find paying work as a writer and struggling to get a new project off the ground: Savage Independent Publishing, which will create a new set of prisoner zines that will focus on women prisoners housed in maximum security units.

“I want something to give these women a boost in their confidence and self-esteem so that when they get out, they won’t believe all the lies that were told to them—that they were no good,” she says. “I want them to have something of their own that’s in print, because that was a big boost for me. That kept me going.”

In 2002 a group of women at Oregon’s Coffee Creek Correctional Facility set out to create a zine to stir discussions about the female prison experience, including motherhood, sexual assault, and poor health care. Without access to photocopiers, computers, or other equipment, they needed someone on the outside to coordinate the effort.

They found Vikki Law, who has been involved in prison activism since the mid-1990s, when she started a books-for-prisoners program in New York City. She helped publish the first issue of the luminous, lively Tenacious in 2003, and has since overseen 19 installments of the zine. Most of the contributors send handwritten submissions, which Law deciphers and types, and any back-and-forth between editor and writers takes place through the mail—which can take months.

Tenacious is free to female prisoners who request it (male prisoners pay postage and readers on the outside two or three dollars). Law prints and distributes between 50 and 75 copies of each issue, but sometimes fewer make their way into the system, in part because mailroom censors can ban, destroy, or reject the final product. (In Idaho, Tenacious is considered prisoner-to-prisoner correspondence, which is against state regulations.) Still, despite the risk of reprisal, the zines travel, as women slip them onto prison library shelves and pass copies to friends and cellmates.
Reading Tenacious, there’s no way to know how much poetic license any one prisoner is taking in an effort to communicate desperation. After reading a few issues, though, one can’t help but see a commonality in the narratives. From institution to institution across the country, petty mind games, abuses of power, and dangerously inadequate health care seem to be the rule, not the exception.

Since he founded the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro in 1998, Anthony Rayson, an anarchist writer in Chicago, has published hundreds of zines by, for, and with prisoners.
It’s such a vast, varied collection that there’s a living archive and catalog at DePaul University library. The titles, which address everything from race and class to legal rights to obesity, can be found in prisons nationwide. Rayson also periodically publishes catalogs and suggestions about how to pass the zines along: by enlisting family and friends on the outside, surreptitiously using printing machines on the inside, or hand-copying a zine from front to back. “Prisons have dorms with 100 guys in them,” he says. “You get one zine in there, and every single one of them’s gonna read it, until it melts or a guard grabs it.”

Rayson corresponds with hundreds of prisoners and is always juggling a handful of new projects and expanding the scope of others. Under his guidance, an Animal Farm–esque collaboration between two prisoners, The Last Act of Circus Animals, grew from 50 pages to 100, and Rayson tapped three prisoner-artists to do the illustrations before releasing it as a special three-zine set. “It’s the most impressive writing and thinking and artwork that I see anywhere,” he says. “They say ‘become the media,’ and that’s what we did.”

At juvenile detention centers across the country, young offenders have an above-ground zine of their own: The Beat Within, a 60-some-page collection of youth-produced writing and art that’s published with the support of New America Media, a San Francisco–based association of ethnic media outlets.

The Beat has a built-in instructional component. The zine’s facilitators, who are sometimes former offenders themselves, conduct weekly workshops at about a dozen juvenile halls. They encourage kids to write about what makes them happy or what choices they wish they’d made. Staffers work with them and choose “pieces of the week” to print in the zine. Other submissions are sent in from around the country, from other juveniles and now-adult former Beat writers alike, and printed in the back. All in all, says cofounder and director David Inocencio, each issue of the Beat is pared down from at least 2,000 submissions.

“I tell the kids what they’re helping create, by telling these stories, is a history book of the week,” Inocencio says. “It’s an awesome platform when kids take it seriously and you’re able to watch them evolve as writers or as thinkers.”

The writing process, at any age and even without the mentoring component of the Beat, is a huge part of what makes prison zines so essential, particularly as public and private penitentiaries around the country cut funding for rehabilitative programming. It also makes sense that zines would be the go-to medium behind bars, since they’re cheap to produce, aren’t beholden to profit motives, and preserve the prisoners’ rawest voices.

But down the line I hope that journalists and editors from larger publications come across these powerful tales and find a way to distribute the work more widely. At their best, prisoner zines humanize the institutionalized, which is the first step toward confronting a system that is desperately in need of reform.

Danielle Maestretti is the Utne Reader librarian. She manages the magazine’s library of 1,300 alternative periodicals, including magazines, journals, alt weeklies, and zines. This article is reprinted with permission from the author and first appeared in the Utne Reader.

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