by Alexis V. Capestany
Between 1975 and 1995, activist prisoners in Washington published a half dozen different publications and contributed to several others focused on prison conditions and social change. Written and edited by incarcerated people, these publications covered legal issues about the rights of people in prison, discussed problems with living standards, highlighted their efforts to end sexual violence and participate in strikes or other protests against abusive prison conditions, and commented on events of national and global significance outside of prison. Begun as Washington moved from a paradigm of reform to one of punishment, the newspapers were vital sources of information and analysis that were produced as mass incarceration came of age in Washington. Through these papers, incarcerated people in the state could create dialogue with each other and challenge what they saw as the injustices of a given prison administration.
Each publication had a similar audience—other incarcerated people and their loved ones or supporters on the outside—with a similar goal but often with a different way of presenting information. Prisoners turned to newspapers to express their frustration or outage at the oppression they experienced. Prison often denies people the ability to share their history or trauma with broader audiences, and these newspapers helped overcome the traditional controls of the institution. Across the different newspapers, incarcerated authors tell how often the prison system was used to punish rather than reform, repress one’s own sense of control of their own body, and prevent rehabilitation. Such controls impeded the ability of incarcerated people to write for the newspapers, publish material in a timely manner, or allow relevant information to come to light.
Included in these papers were reports on guards, legal cases, changes to prison policy, and current events both inside and outside of prison. These papers helped incarcerated people by encouraging them to have a voice, to be heard, to examine their role within the penal system, and to provide emotional and legal support for the human rights of people in prison. As time went on, legal support was especially critical, since new laws continued to impact the lives of incarcerated people and their families. These papers helped to develop a sense of community and reliance on one another through a common understanding of marginalization.
During this time period, people incarcerated in Washington used strikes, shutdowns, and other protests to confront sexism, abuse, discrimination, and political oppression. The newspapers focused most of their attention on the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, which experienced a tremendous amount of turmoil and upheaval in those years. The papers focused on how activists, indigenous, and people of color prisoners were particularly targeted. The case of Jimi and George Simmons, Native American (Muckleshoot/Rogue River) brothers and prisoners at Walla Walla who were accused of killing a prison guard during a 1979 riot, was of attracted particular attention. George Simmons was convicted in 1980 and committed suicide the next year. Jimi was acquitted in 1981 and released in 1983. By that time, Walla Walla had embarked on a far more punitive path.
In the early part of this period, writers for the Red Dragon and the Anarchist Black Dragon newspapers expressed their ideas in the revolutionary language common among radicals of the time period. As activist prisoner Ed Mead wrote in 1982, “The prisons of the nineteenth and twentieth century have unquestionably been instruments of class coercion and terror, wielded selectively against the poor, uneducated, the minorities, the people, in short, most systematically victimized already by the structure and operations of economic and social institutions.”
As time went on, these papers had to adapt to survive, especially as activist efforts on the outside shrunk while the prison system continued to grow. Yet the publications never lost their political mission. Both The Abolitionist (begun in 1987) and Prison Legal News (begun in 1990) championed prisoner rights as they provided critical legal analysis and political tools for prisoners seeking to understand, resist, or change their circumstances.
Although focused on Washington, these papers had a national impact for two key reasons. First, key editors and authors were transferred to different prisons around the country, connecting them to activist prisoners in Arizona, Illinois, and elsewhere. Furthermore, many of the issues described in these papers could be found in prisons across the nation. Thus, these newspapers provide a unique window into the experience of mass incarceration from those who lived it—and contested it—first-hand. They are necessary sources through which to understand the experience of prison in Washington and how it has changed over time.
The Washington Prison History Project archive contains copies of multiple prisoner publications, from Washington state as well as the greater Pacific Northwest area. The following publications were written and produced by incarcerated people. The dates listed in parentheses refer to the issues available in the archive, not the full years a given publication existed.
- The Abolitionist (1987-1988)
A monthly publication, The Abolitionist featured news and culture relevant to people in prison. It published information about court cases and legal or political changes pertaining to incarcerated people, and encouraged people to act in response. The paper also included book recommendations, poems, comics, and meeting dates for family and friends to show support.
- Anarchist Black Dragon (1978-1979)
The archive includes only two issues of this polemical newspaper edited by Carl Harp. A radical critique of prison, the Anarchist Black Dragon was particularly focused on conditions at Walla Walla following a series of strikes and counter measures at the prison. Harp was found dead in his cell of an apparent suicide in 1981.
- Chill Factor (1982)
The Chill Factor was a prisoner rights newsletter produced by people incarcerated at the Arizona State Penitentiary. Though convicted in Washington, Ed Mead spent several months incarcerated in Arizona and contributed to this newspaper.
- Northwest Passage (1976)
Northwest Passage was a radical newspaper produced out of Bellingham, Washington. The one issue contained in the archive includes several prison-related issues, especially those concerning radical activists.
- Prison Focus (2014-2015)
Prison Focus is the quarterly newsletter of a California-based volunteer-run prisoner support organization that works to end solitary confinement and other abuses in the California prison system.
- Red Dragon (1980-1982)
A polemical newspaper, Red Dragon featured prisoner writings on international and national current events and how they relate to the struggles within prisons. The paper paid special attention to prisoner strikes and their aftermath, including how the state adjusted prison management in response as well as the demands activist prisoners continued to pursue. Red Dragon also included comics and poems by incarcerated people.
- Sunfighter (1975)
Sunfighter covered the nationwide radical prison movement. The one issue contained in the archive includes numerous articles by incarcerated people as well as other participants in radical movements.
- United Families and Friends of Prisoners (1977)
Born out of the Walla Walla prison strike of 1977 in Washington, the United Families and Friends of Prisoners was a monthly publication supported by the American Friends Service Committee and featured brief updates on and analyses of legal cases, sentencing policy, and prison conditions.
- Washington Prison News Service (1982-1983)
Founded in the Washington State Penitentiary, this newsletter was edited by two radical prisoners: Danny Atteberry (a member of Men Against Sexism at Walla Walla) and Bill Dunne. Each issue featured brief descriptions of prison conditions and legal cases. The paper tried to coordinate with women incarcerated at Purdy but folded after Atteberry and Dunne were transferred to different prisons.
Alexis V. Capestany is a recent graduate of the University of Washington Bothell with an interest in human rights, restorative justice, and one day becoming a defense attorney.
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