(Copyright 2001 Al Aronowitz)





Today, when conversations turn to prisons and prisoners I listen.

I learned long ago that the moment the conversation turns serious, eyes (and minds) begin to glaze over in less time than it takes a Texas Ranger to kidney punch a homeless drunk. When the conversation gets around to Cuba and Castro, I remind people of writer Dorothy Day's trip to Cuba after the Cuban revolution. She had gone down to see for herself if life was as oppressive for churchgoing Catholics in Cuba as the U.S. government was reporting. In one of the columns she wrote for the Catholic Worker she said, "Better a Godless country that takes care of its poor than a Christian country that doesn't."

Believe me, talking to the average citizen about injustice is like walking into a white Southern Baptist church in Danville, Virginia---the last headquarters of the Confederacy---and asking for donations to the Black Panther Legal Defense Fund or the American Civil Liberties Union.  Anyone present who knew what you were talking about would think you were completely mad. Those who didn't would think you were an affront to their very selective, lily white God and attempt to do to you what the Romans did to the good carpenter. Not pretty.

When I began getting phone messages in the summer of 1989 that someone interested in Penal Digest International was trying to contact me I was only mildly interested. Over the years I have been contacted by an occasional law student or theology student who was doing research on or volunteer work with prisoners. Invariably they had gotten a taste of prison life, and had heard about the rise and fall of the PDI and/or the Church of the New Song, a prisoner religion whose philosophy had been spread by the PDI.

These links to my PDI past show themselves unexpectedly. I'll notice someone staring at me. Usually I walk over and introduce myself. Not infrequently the person turns out to be a former PDI subscriber or a librarian. Occasionally, after I am steered away from the crowd and into a private space, the person confesses that he or she was once a prisoner. That confession is followed by a narrative of memorable moments.

"Acid flashbacks," as the person says. "I remember the Sunday church service in Atlanta," or "The Terre Haute tour was a gas---whatever happened to John?" or "I was at Oklahoma Women's Penitentiary."

Sometimes it's a writer, someone with a clear enough understanding of what gets into print in these United States to know that to be well informed a person has to set aside $250 a year to subscribe to In These Times, The Progressive, The Nation, Mother Jones, Z Magazine, Utne Reader, Catholic Worker, Washington Monthly, Workers World, Dollars and Cents, and EXTRA and be a member of The DataCenter 1 publications and organizations with staffs who understand the insidious Rain Barrel Theory of Politics, the theory that best describes politics in the United States---the scum rises to the top. Two People whose names are anathema to the FBI, the Secret Service, the CIA, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Bush---all organizations and individuals whose existence is proof of the rain barrel theory's validity.

This most recent contact was different. Ken Wachsberger not only knew about the PDI, he had been part of the day-to-day insanity we had all learned to love in a sado-masochistic way. Ken had been hitching west on I-80 and was picked up by some PDI staff members who were on their way home. Like so many road weary wanderers, he accepted an invitation to join us for dinner and a night's rest. While waiting for dinner he wandered into the PDI offices---where the lights burned 24 hours a day-and went to work.

Now, 20 years later, he asked if I'd like to look back at those PDI years and share some thoughts. Thoughts on the PDI, the times, and the people. I had doubts about whether or not I was the best person to do so. For many years, friends who were witness to those three traumatic years have urged me to tell the story. I always assumed that someone else would. The PDI had staff members who were far better writers than I. But Ken wanted me to write the history because I was the founder. I agreed.

So what about the PDI years? I should include a few stories about prison experiences and observations that convinced me that the PDI was desperately needed; I should also include information on why I thought it would succeed and how---with the help of an unusually diverse group of people---we forced it to succeed.

The PDI came into existence in 1970 during politically painful times. We had caught the tail end of the Vietnam War both in and out of the can. Our detractors called us radical. We probably initiated as many lawsuits against agencies of the federal and state governments as any newspaper in history. The list of our reporters, sales agents, and prison representatives read like a Who's Who of jailhouse lawyers. Many were serving life terms with no hope for parole for committing acts that ranged from political crimes against the state to crimes for profit, revenge, you name it. In prison, they had turned to education and law as a means of self-fulfillment. They were our newspaper's strongest supporters and most committed advocates. They never gave up. They had nothing to lose. They were afraid of no one. They could be threatened, but they remained uncowed.

For over three years, with a staff that started with two and grew to 25, the PDI operated out of a three-story house at 505 South Lucas in Iowa City, Iowa. 505 became synonymous with PDI. I bought the house at 505---with the help of sympathetic realtors and a no-down-payment GI loan---so the PDI and the staff would have a place to live. For three years, using a variety of means, I fed, clothed, and sheltered the staff, their friends, drifters, runaways, wanted men, women, and children, and paid the bills. Well...most of the bills.

A little over four years and a couple hundred thousand dollars later, I walked away from the PDI with exactly what I'd walked away from the slam. Nothing. I wasn't totally without resources, however. I owned a home in Georgeville, Minnesota, in the west central part of the state that had been home to Hundred Flowers, the underground newspaper edited by Eddie Felien, the Marxist scholar from the University of Minnesota who ended up on the Minneapolis city council. My home there didn't have running water or electricity, but what do you expect for $400? I also had a 1963 one-ton International pickup that looked like it had been abandoned in Watts during the riots. The pickup had been part of the junk pile out back of the $400 house. It needed tires, a battery, and six weeks worth of hard work to get it running. Along with everything else, I considered it a gift. Hell, the PDI was a gift that for a long time nourished prisoners and their families. And why not? It was their newspaper. They wrote for it, produced it, paid for it pennies at a time. We never refused a prisoner a subscription. We accepted whatever they could afford. Most could afford nothing. How they got it and why they got it is part of the story I will get to.

Those years were lean, hungry years. Tough years. In many respects they were violent years. By that I mean we were witnesses to violence. Violence against men, women, and children who were prisoners. Violence against the families of prisoners. And finally, violence against the primary staff members of the PDI by the federal, state, and local police that culminated in murder---a murder that was committed by a man who was pushed over the "edge" by an undercover cop who sealed all of our futures by giving the man a gun and urging him to use it. Staff members were arrested for possessing drugs that were stashed by ex-prisoners who had been released from prison for the express purpose of destroying the PDI and the Church of the New Song. The seemingly unlimited power and resources of those three levels of government were more than a handful of unpaid, hungry men, women, and children could live with. Most took off trying to find a place to rest and restore themselves. Consequently, the PDI and a number of staff members were destroyed.

With the PDI's voice stilled, the prisoners lost their voice. Today the conditions in prisons are more repressive. Extreme overcrowding exists mainly because of the longer prison sentences that are handed out today, so frequently for victimless crimes. Increasing numbers of prisoners are being locked up for minor drug offenses---many are denied the opportunity to earn a parole. With more of the poor, uneducated members of society ending up in prison, the need for educational and vocational programs is greater than it has ever been. Yet, cutbacks in correctional department budgets mean that fewer of these programs are available.

And the PDI" Today it is a mass of notes, letters, papers, and subscription lists that are safely stashed in boxes in the State Historical Society of Iowa. And, of course, there are memories.

I look back, see the victories, and I'm reminded of a line Barry Hannah wrote, "Not only does absence make the heart grow fonder, it makes history your own beautiful lie." It's not going to be easy making sure that this doesn't become my beautiful lie, but I'll try.

How brief can I be? Just the experiences inside the walls that generated the energy for the PDI deserve much more than I can give them here. The people, the prisoners, living and dead, deserve more. We'll just have to see where this leads us.  ##



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