SECTION NINE

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COLUMN FIFTY-FOUR, DECEMBER 1, 2000
(Copyright 2000 Al Aronowitz)

STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT TO GET OFF 

or

WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
 


PART 6: PRISONS AND PRISONS, MY DAUGHTERS AND SONS

Penal Digest International. The PDI. A newspaper with two purposes: to provide prisoners with a voice that prison authorities could not silence and to establish lines of communication between prisoners and people in the free world.

Over twenty years have passed since the idea for Penal Digest International began to take shape. I was a prisoner in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, at the time. You've heard of Leavenworth---one of the end-of-the-line prisons where feds, and even the state prisons, send their  "bad boys." At that time the federal prison at Marion, Illinois, was being used as a youth joint while the feds perfected what was to become the most repressive monument to absolute security that the U.S. government could design. Back then, they used Leavenworth for the truly incorrigible. Leavenworth was where they sent the prisoners when they closed Alcatraz.

Stepping into that prison was reminiscent of the opening paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities. It was the best and the worst place to do time. The best place to be if you wanted to serve your prison sentence and not be bothered by anyone---prisoner or guard. The worst place to be if you were hoping to make parole. The best place for quiet in the cell blocks. The worst place for informers. The best place for food. The worst place for library books. The best place if you could learn by observing and be silent until spoken to. The worst place if you had a big mouth.

I was a first-timer, a fast learner, and, in many respects, I was lucky.  

So what was a first-timer---a non-violent first-timer---doing behind the walls at Leavenworth with guys who had averaged five previous  incarcerations for very violent crimes? It's a long story. I've never told it before. But the memories of that period are clear. My thoughts frequently turn to the injustices that surrounded me then. I internalize them. Sometimes, when I am alone, maybe sitting on the patio late at night, I doze off. I awake suddenly, look up, and everything seems new. Fresh. The shadows on the trees are a deeper, richer, more visible green. The air is clear. The sound of the insects is sharper, crisper, vibrating. The sound waves can be felt-almost seen. In the slam, one afternoon. Very hot, the last week of July. I'm in the shade, in a slight breeze. Half asleep, I find my eyes skimming along the ground, moving fast, observing, soaring over the factories, cell houses, walls. Constantly turning back in. Lightning-like through clouds and around corners. Observing. Even the shades of gray are a miracle. Dark shadows turned into a phosphorescent green. Black prisoners, working with weights in the blinding Kansas sun, become a deep, rich blue. Blood splatters black across bleached concrete as a face is smashed and a sand-filled sock disappears. I wondered when the war would ever end. I still do.  ##

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THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST IS A SERVICE MARK OF AL ARONOWITZ