Criminal Reads

Ξ October 6th, 2007 | → | ∇ the guide magazine |

October 2002

Criminal Reads
The contraband’s in your hands
By Jim D’Entremont

The Guide’s subscribers and personals advertisers include scores of inmates at penal institutions across the USA. For gay or bisexual prisoners, this magazine can be a lifeline to a proud gay world beyond electric fences topped with razor wire. For that very reason, prison administrators are, with some regularity, stopping The Guide and publications like it from reaching the hands of incarcerated men.

The Guide’s policy is to avoid explicit photographic images of genitalia or hardcore sexual activity. But the magazine does run ads for sex-related businesses, images of discreet nudity, sexually explicit text, and articles that challenge orthodox thinking on sexual issues. In recent years, these factors have contributed to dozens of interventions by prison censors.

When prison authorities reject an issue of The Guide, notification (if any) can come in the form of half-completed single-page notices or detailed reports. Florida prisons provide photocopies of offending pages. Some Texan prison officials thoughtfully offer to slice pages that “qualify for clipping” out of the magazine. A typical contraband slip from a Texas penal institution reads, “A specific factual determination has been made that the publication is detrimental to prisoner’s rehabilitation because it would encourage deviated criminal sexual behavior…. Pages 103, 116, 117, 119, and 121 contain graphic depictions of men engaging in homosexual activity.”

Institutional censors cite visual images appearing in these pages more often than text, but written passages are targeted at times. Boyd McDonald’s “Sex Histories” have been giving prison mailroom workers attacks of the vapors for years. More chillingly, feature articles and even letters to the editor can precipitate impoundment.

Officials at Florida’s Okeechobee CI seized the September 1999 Guide because of a letter from a reader on age-of-consent issues and Bill Andriette’s piece “Gay Scouts: In Name Only.” (”Skinny-dipping, campfire circle jerks, strip poker, and sexual initiation rites may not be chapter headings in Scouting for Boys, but they remain expressions of the male bonding that is the organization’s glue.”) The contraband notice reads, “Threatens the safety of children.”

Most prison mailroom seizures of the The Guide ostensibly occur because of advertising layouts. Some Guide ads push the authorities’ buttons more assertively than others. The display ad that has sent prison censors into orbit most often, figuring in at least 60% of the magazine’s impoundments in 2001-’02, is that of the clothing-optional Canyon Boys Club in Palm Springs. The ad, in which frontal nudity has been obscured, includes a photo depicting several men cavorting in the clothing-optional resort’s outdoor pool. One man lies atop another on a rubber raft while a third man pulls the first man’s swimsuit down below his buttocks.

To the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, this constitutes a “graphic depiction of men engaging in homosexual activity.” To officials at Florida’s Columbia CI, it presents an intolerable instance of “naked men laying between the legs of other naked men.”

Other display ads prison officials have used as excuses to suppress The Guide include one for the California retailer Leather Masters showing a man cuffed to a St. Andrew’s cross (”sadomasochistic abuse” in Florida), and an ad for Montreal’s Sauna Centre-Ville, where a nude model stands with his back to the camera, while beside him a second man faces the camera, his hand on the crotch of his boxer briefs.

“We see bare butts in the shower every day,” points out one Guide subscriber in a New England prison. “What is this censorship meant to accomplish? Do they really think this will stop prison rape? I mean, please.”

More comprehensibly, prisons also bar material depicting construction of weapons, encouraging escape, or providing instructions for manufacturing drugs. But most penal systems keep their censorship criteria conveniently vague. Florida prisons ban reading matter that foments “group disruption,” is “dangerously inflammatory,” or “otherwise presents a threat to the security, good order, or discipline of the correctional system or the safety of any person.”

The Florida Department of Corrections’ regulations regarding sexual material are as specific as such regulations ever get. Proscribed are “(1) Actual or simulated sexual intercourse; (2) Sexual bestiality; (3) Masturbation; (4) Sadomasochistic abuse; (5) Actual contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or, if such person is female, breast; (6) Any act or conduct which constitutes sexual battery or simulates that sexual battery is being or will be committed.” Also inadmissible is any visual depiction of “nudity or a lewd display of the genitals in such a way as to create the appearance that sexual contact is imminent.”

These rules are always, in the end, applied subjectively. Censorship decisions are usually made by quasi-educated, low-level staff members who bring their religious beliefs, prejudices, and personal agendas to work every day. Whether or not a magazine gets past the censors depends on who happens to be on censorship duty at any particular time.

When mailroom gremlins reject a book or magazine, inmates rarely have recourse to any meaningful appeals process. Typically, impounded publications are held until the would-be recipient authorizes their destruction or requests that they be mailed to a friend, a family member, or the original sender. The latter option almost always means that the inmate must pay for postage.

Inmates and civil libertarians have fought prison censorship with limited success. In Amatel v. Reno (1998) a group of prisoners and publishers lost a federal challenge to regulations barring publications like Playboy and Penthouse from prisons on grounds that they are incompatible with the “rehabilitative environment” and create a hostile climate for female staff. On March 20, 2000, the US Supreme Court rejected without comment the appeal of Jonathan Mauro, an inmate at the Arizona State Prison at Florence, who had sued in 1995 for the reinstatement of his Playboy subscription.

Two days after Mauro lost his appeal, the ACLU of Colorado mounted a federal lawsuit challenging censorship of inmates’ reading matter by the Colorado Department of Corrections, citing an astonishing range of books and periodicals marked as contraband — including alternative newspapers, music magazines barred for “gang-related” content (i.e., depictions of rap artists), Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, and books by Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The suit is still pending. Meanwhile, the outcome of the Mauro case has made any publication concerned with sexuality fair game in prison mailrooms.

Putting gay under wraps

The homophobia behind prison censorship of gay books and magazines can be starkly explicit. Some prisons permit inmates to receive the Sports Illustrated swimuit issue or Victoria’s Secret catalogues, but suppress postcards showing Michelangelo’s David. At the Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex, staff mail screeners confiscating issues of The Guide neatly pencil in “Homosexual magazine” beside Box 7 (”Contains unauthorized materials of a sexual nature as determined by the Literary Review Committee”) on the Notice of Unauthorized Mail form. Officers at the Kentucky State Penitentiary rejected the October 1999 Guide with the notation “Material promotes homosexual contact between males.”

Beginning with its August 2001 issue, The Guide has been banned at the Massachusetts Treatment Center, a facility for sex offenders. The Guide’s advocacy on behalf of Treatment Center inmates Alden Baker and Bernard Baran was a probable contributing factor. But the first three contraband citations were simply for “homosexuality.” After at least two prisoners complained to attorneys, the reason cited for seizing The Guide became “inappropriate sexual conduct.” But “inappropriate” still means homosexual. “That means I’m inappropriate,” says one inmate. “Why don’t they contraband me?”

(For months after the Treatment Center’s crackdown on The Guide, straight prisoners at that facility continued to receive certain softcore heterosexual publications. Recently, however, an issue of Maxim, in which seminude female models loll beside articles like “Unleash Her Inner Nympho,” fell into the hands of a female guard who called the mailroom and complained that Maxim was “disgusting and inappropriate,” the magazine was banished from the premises.)

Sometimes inmates’ gay publications quietly disappear without achieving contraband status. This can happen to a magazine as slick and cautious as The Advocate. “When I don’t get my magazine,” says an incarcerated Advocate subscriber, “I think, well, yeah, it could have got lost or stolen… but there are other guys here who get The Advocate. Usually, when one of us doesn’t receive it, nobody does. They just make some issues vanish.”

Penal systems are attempting to make the fantasy lives of inmates vanish, and to sterilize their thoughts. Most of these inmates will sooner or later be released into a world brimming over with sexual messages, a world that no purported rehabilitation program will have prepped them to inhabit. Their keepers pretend to believe that withholding sexual stimuli from prisoners will nudge them toward lives of Puritan rectitude, both behind bars and after their release. It’s doubtful, however, that prison administrators are sincerely fearful that certain reading matter might lead inmates to masturbate. Their real fear may be that certain reading matter leads inmates to think.

In her impassioned dissent from the DC District Court’s pro-censorship Amatel v. Reno decision, Judge Patricia Wald expressed concern about “an overwhelming risk of overregulation and invasion of the innermost recesses of the human mind and spirit” in the name of inmates’ rehabilitation. “Indeed,” she wrote, “undertaking the Herculean task of ‘character-molding’ is inherently problematic in its First Amendment implications, for it presumably involves casting emerging prisoners in society’s own image. This, of course, is the antithesis of First Amendment freedoms.”


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