I live in a quiet part of the jungle and I know how to listen so I learned this from the beating drums of the jungle telegraph. About a week ago, a member of a well known and widely respected motorcycle club was complaining in his cell in a Connecticut prison. No one told me this. The drums told me. And, the chattering monkeys.
“…last year,” the native drums repeated, “they began to bar books about or by motorcycle club members. This includes the book The Aging Rebel: Dispatches From The Motorcycle Outlaw Frontier by Donald Charles Davis. These books are purely being banned because their subject matter includes motorcycle clubs. They use the ‘catch-all’ ‘promotes criminal activity’ while still allowing books on the Mafia, murder, kidnapping and corruption of government officials, all of which apparently promote NO criminal activity.”
The prisoner’s current estimated release date, the monkeys tell me, is June 2060. I don’t even know this guy’s name, his inmate number or the institution where he is currently being rehabilitated for his eventual release back into society in another, mere, 47 years. That is why they do not appear here. Although, I would not say even if I did know.
Obviously, the benevolent and all knowing social engineer Michael Bloomberg has extended the frontiers of his tyranny northward into New England. So to name this prisoner, even if I knew his name which I do not, would doom him to further re-education and other forms of corrective actions by the wise and infallible Connecticut Department of Correction. Isn’t that a wonderful name for a psychopathic society? The Department of Correction?
Right To Read
A few people who read this – particularly social liberals – may be surprised to learn that among the other rights prisoners forfeit is the right to read what they want. In the United States, until recently, the right to read anything was considered one of the most basic freedoms. One driver of the abolitionist movement was outrage that slaves were forbidden to read. Frederick Douglas wrote movingly of the fury his masters unleashed on him when they caught him reading. Next thing you know Harriet Beecher Stowe was writing the book that started the Civil War. Slaves couldn’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin of course. Plantation owners would have banned Stowe’s book if they could. But the sad and inflammatory tale of what happened to poor, old Tom got read anyway.
The right to read what you want inspired a peasant’s revolt in late 14th Century England, drove the Protestant Reformation and was considered integral to American democracy for almost 200 years – even if you were a prisoner. As recently as 1974, in a case called Procunier v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled that prison officials had virtually no right of censorship.
But the high court began to back track in 1987, in a decision called Turner v. Salley. After that case, the First Amendment right to read could be “reasonably regulated” if prison officials asserted a “legitimate neutral interest.” The Supremes seem to have wanted to keep books that describe the does and don’t of successful prison breaks out of the hands of prisoners. And, this ruling established something called the “Turner Test.”
Banning The Aging Rebel clearly fails the Turner Test for two reasons. First because The Aging Rebel is a book of essays, all of which first appeared on this website, it is totally removed from any penological interest. There isn’t a single paragraph about how to make a tattoo gun out of a CD player or how to transform a toothbrush into a knife. The parts of the book prisoners seem to like best are the essays about riding a motorcycle under the Southwestern sky. Secondly the book has been banned simply and only because it appeals to bikers. A specific phrase in the Turner ruling, a “legitimate neutral interest,” explicitly means that a book cannot be banned simply because a jailer dislikes a certain idea or group – like bikers.
The Turner Test became a little less important after 1989 when a slightly different Supreme Court ruled in Thornburg v. Abbott that prison officials could restrict what a prisoner reads as long as they could offer an argument that the restriction served a legitimate penological interest. Connecticut’s censorship probably fails that test, too. But, any argument against banning any non-religious book disappeared after a Supreme Court case in 2006 called Beard v. Banks. Beard allows any little dictator to legally ban anything she wants – based on her own professional opinion. If a prison official has a professional belief based on his experience and training that the Moon is made of green cheese he can punish or prevent dissent by simply banning books that argue that the Moon is made of old rocks.
In their dissent to Beard, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg warned that prison regulations that could arbitrarily take away prisoners’ right to read what they wanted “comes perilously close to a state-sponsored effort at mind control.”
David Fathi, who at the time was the senior counsel for the ACLU’s national Prison Project, later called the ruling “a deliberate attempt to strip prisoners of the most fundamental attribute of citizenship, and even of personhood – the right to know, to learn, and to think about what is happening in the community, the country, the world.”
And, chances are you are just learning all this now because, ironically, this is not the sort of thing newspapers, magazines and television networks like to report. What newspapers and the networks did report was a ruling the high court announced the day before, that case was Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which established certain constitutional rights for Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Stevens and Ginsburg voted for that one, too and the rest of the court let the two liberals win. So that disturbance in The Force had to be righted with Beard. Not even liberal Supreme Court Justices can have it their way every time. The Hamdan and Beard rulings taken together probably illustrate as well as anything how American “justice” actually works.
Kimberly J. Weir
The Connecticut official who decided that The Aging Rebel “encourages or instructs in the commission of criminal activity” is Kimberly J. Weir. Weir is one of those American success stories that keep getting shoved down the people’s collective throat. She has been a Connecticut jailer since 1990. During that time she has been promoted up through the ranks, serving as a guard, a unit manager, an Affirmative Action Investigator, a deputy warden and now she is Director of Security and literary critic at large. While working on the open side of the bars she has found time to earn a bachelor’s degree in “Criminal Justice and Human Service” and a master’s in something called “Human Service/Organizational Management and Leadership.”
Her official biography adds, “Director Weir’s commitment to help others is not only exemplified by the dedication she demonstrates on the job, but also by her community involvement. She served as a mentor and role model to young girls, volunteered to assist families victimized by fire, helped build homes for Habitat for Humanities, participated in Extreme Home Makeovers, volunteered as a Big Sister, and as a crisis response advocate for women who have been victimized by domestic violence. She is also an active member of the Progressive Community Baptist Church where she serves as a Leadership Board member and leads several ministries.”
I don’t know Weir. I never heard of her before. My first reaction after learning, from the monkeys and the drums, that she had banned my little and unimportant book was to sit down and write her a polite and sincere thank you note. The book doesn’t sell that well so I’m considering adding a headline to the front cover that screams, “Now! Banned by the Connecticut Department of Corrections for Encouraging and Instructing Criminal Activity!”
On the other hand Weir did just cost me 16,000 potential readers. She banned The Aging Rebel because a prisoner ordered a copy with the intent of reading it and this was a way for her to bully and further dehumanize the man. Politicians call Weir’s employer the “corrections industry” but it is really the “punishment industry.” It’s a vital component of our new “knowledge-based,” “post-industrial” economy – like the foreclosure business, big data and usury.
There isn’t much new to say about the punishment business but some of what everybody already knows is probably worth repeating here now. The corrections industry has been bigger than the tobacco business for more than 15 years. It writes its own laws through something called the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. ALEC lobbied for and got passed the California Three Strikes law in 1994. As an industry, corrections staunchly supports both the war on drugs and the war on illegal immigrants. More Americans work in a prisons, about 800,000, than work for an airline. In 2010, just two private prison corporations had revenues of $3 billion. The U.S. prison population quadrupled between 1980 and 2007. The United States has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. About one percent of all American adults is in prison or jail. About 33 percent of the American adult population is either locked up or on probation. No one bothers to compile statistics on how much this all costs. Eight years ago, 2005 was the last year for which official statistics are available, it cost an average of about $24,000 to imprison someone for a year.
There are several economic explanations for the growth and escalating influence of the prison-industrial complex. The most obvious is the rebirth of slavery. According to an article in The Huffington Post late last year, “nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.” Virtually all Fritz helmets are made by prison labor, so that element of the emerging slave industry is vital to our national defense.
Weir represents the psychological aspect of creating a huge underclass of legal inferiors. “All madness,” the psychiatrist Fritz Perls once observed, “is power madness.” Weir is one of those people, so common in the police and corrections fields, who likes to push powerless people around. Her ruling is not about The Aging Rebel. She just saw the book as an opportunity to rub a powerless man’s face in the dirt.
Who knows what books Weir read while earning her prestigious advanced degree in Human Service/Organizational Management and Leadership. She probably didn’t read anything by the 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Engels.
Which is a shame. Because if Weir was just slightly better read she might understand that laws are easily disobeyed and words cannot really be banned. Sure, she has made a powerful statement of her contempt for her charges, for the prisoner who wanted to read The Aging Rebel and for that book’s author and its contents. But if only she had found time to glance through Engels she might have stumbled over his truest and most famous dictum: That the one constant in history is irony. And, from there she might even have stumbled upon the phenomena called samizdat.
Samizdat, usually pronounced SAHM-hees-dot in English and something more like sah-MEEZ-dot in Russian, is a word invented in the Soviet gulags during the reign of Joseph Stalin. It translates literally as “self-publication.” It is usually translated as “forbidden writings.” But what it really means is writing which cannot be officially suppressed.
Prisoners read and write. They have always written and read. They have a lot of time to kill.
Men educate themselves in prison. An ignorant pimp named Malcolm Little became the now sainted Malcolm X while he was locked up. An alleged embezzler named William Sidney Porter became a writer named O. Henry in prison. Thomas Mallory wrote what was arguably the first European novel, Le Morte d’Arthur in a prison cell sometime before his death in 1471. The book passed through some unknown pairs of prisoners’ hands before it was finally published in 1485 and eventually became the Broadway musical Camelot. Russian prisoners in the 20th Century, many of them political prisoners, read the novels of Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak as samizdat. Before it was a best seller and a movie in the West, Doctor Zhivago was samizdat. These words you are reading now are hardly Doctor Zhivago but they are samizdat. And, they will make their way into the Connecticut prisons, probably within another week, whether Kimberly Weir likes it or not.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the world is undergoing a profound set of changes. On the one hand, policemen and other anti-democratic constituencies around the world seek to define reality and suffocate the free exchange of ideas by controlling language. For example, the term “gang” or even more to the point here the term “outlaw motorcycle gang,” or the boundary marker between informed and uninformed biker experts, the common codeword “OMG.” The world is awash in propaganda – which is the use of certain words to describe some limited information to achieve a particular effect. Propaganda might serve a good or bad end. In the broader world, there is now something called “marriage equality.” What were once soldiers are now “warriors” and will soon be “female warriors.” There are, apparently, both “Islamofascists” and “Islamophobes.” Numerous words and phrases now have legal meanings that are at odds with their meanings in common English, like “criminal enterprise,” “conspiracy,” “racket” and, a current favorite, “transnational gang.”
In this historical moment, most propaganda serves the enforcers and enablers of repression who have allied themselves with traditional media. That is why people who want to know something about bikers often find themselves reading a book written by Kerrie Droban or George Rowe instead of a book written by Donald Charles Davis – because the same big publishers who published Droban and Rowe passed on The Aging Rebel. The criminal justice and prison systems are poorly understood by most citizens because major magazines and national newspapers refuse to look. It can be hard to look. It can be unpopular to look. Most jurors in biker cases ground their verdicts in lies they have been told by television – not simply by Gangland and The Devils Ride but by the factually evil nitwits who are Action News Now.
Ironically, these traditional and now corrupted ways of spreading words, ideas, news and complaints are dying. Magazines are folding right and left. Newspapers are dropping like flies. Literary agents refuse to accept new clients. The hot new novel will be written by Lena Dunham, Gangland is no longer in production. And meanwhile, a million blogs bloom. So-called new media has become the new samizdat.
Most of the cheerleaders for traditional media condemn internet writing. The most common complaint is that the internet is full of lies. Sometimes it is.
But the internet is also full of truths that you can find nowhere else. Forbidden writing is mostly found on the net because unlike traditional publishing, journalism, television and film there are no guardians of the gate – like the editors who think No Angel is more truthful than The Aging Rebel. Or, like Kimberly Weir.
Anyone can publish in cyberspace even without official approval. The Arab Spring would have been impossible without the internet. There could have been no Occupy Movement, no Tea Party and certainly no hactivist group like Anonymous without the internet. Democratic and dissident movements in countries as disparate as Mexico and Burma spread news and ideas as samizdat on the internet. Governments everywhere, including the American government, are very concerned about the internet and about the free expression it represents. Even in the United States, internet surveillance is pervasive and civil libertarians are increasingly concerned about that.
But surveillance is much less dangerous than censorship. Censorship is really only possible in a place like prison, or in a country that has become a prison like China, or in the prison Michael Bloomberg thinks America should become. There are no walls, bars, restraint chairs, spit masks or ball gags in cyberspace. I can say almost anything I want to say here and so can you – whether the apparatchiks approve or not.
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