California Prisons Are Making It Harder for Inmates to Organize and Protest by Banning ‘Obscene’ Reading Material
In February 2013 a group of inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison called for a statewide hunger strike to protest the widespread and sometimes capricious use of special housing units (SHUs, a burreaucratic term for solitary confinement). Germinated in a small collective that included representatives from four different gangs, the call quickly spread throughout the state’s lockups, and on July 8, 30,000 men in 25 prisons refused their meals, attracting national and international media attention. At the end of the two-month protest the state legislature promised to hold hearings to look into the use of SHUs, and some reforms have resulted, including a “step-down” program that may hasten some inmates’ transfers out of solitary.
The strike represented a feat of communication that defeated barriers of concrete, steel, and distance, and it had relied, in part, on the newspapers, magazines, and prison newsletters that had spread the word about the protest.
“The access to the media—from mainstream newspapers to more prison-specific publications—empowered these prisoners to strike,” said Oakland attorney Anne Weills, who represents a group of prisoners suing the state for keeping them in solitary for over a decade. “It gave them a sense of individual and collective empowerment.”
But Weills wasn’t the only person who noticed how the prisoners’ use of the media had facilitated a stunning denunciation of SHUs. The prison authorities also took note—and now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) is proposing a ban on publications that address prison concerns under the guise of clamping down on “obscene materials.”
In California prisons, “obscene materials” has traditionally referred to a fairly narrow realm of images and written material, including photos or drawings of nude people or sexual penetration and pornography involving minors. Since the CDCR first adopted these prohibitions in 1995, there have been no updates, modifications, or additions to the list of contraband publications—until now. In April, the CDCR announced that it would change the rules to prohibit any publication that has an association with a “Security Threat Group” (STG, the new term of art for gang) or any material that might “indicate an association with groups that are oppositional to authority and society.”
What Is Obscene?
Recently, a printing house refused to print a novel set to be published by Tyrant Books because they found it obscene, which seems extremely lame. There are still such things as “obscene” books? I traded some emails with Giancarlo DiTrapano, Tyrant’s publisher and frequent VICE contributor, to try and figure out what sort of puritanical printing houses are able to stay in business in 2013.
(Full disclosure: Tyrant published my most recent novel, Sky Saw, in November.)
VICE: It’s been a long time since I can remember feeling offended—especially about obscenity in art. Honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a time ever when I saw something and was like, “That’s so fucked up it shouldn’t exist.” Do you remember the last time you felt offended?
Giancarlo: That’s a hard one. I was talking to someone the other day about Max Hardcore’s legal problems, and how some of his porn is about the only thing I have ever been offended by. Like the ultra-violent, five dicks in a crying girl’s mouth, her eyeliner running down her face stuff. Have to admit, that shit is pretty unpleasant. But I wouldn’t ban it or anything.
What was it about the video that got you? That it seemed against her will?
Yeah, that. The look of like pure terror on these girls’ faces. There is something about gagging in porn. It’s almost this biological line of consent. But it can be hot. Why’d we start talking about porn? Can you imagine being offended by Piss Christ or NWA or any of that shit people have freaked out over that made it to the cover of Newsweek? I feel like the one thing that would seriously offend me would be child pornography, and that is probably the only type of pornography I haven’t seen. There’s something about kids. Adults, I don’t really care what happens to them. They can do whatever, so long as it’s consensual, but kids need to be watched over.
Yeah, I can remember feeling upset—or at least emotionally stressed—by things where a person seemed to be inflicting sexual shit on someone against his or her will. I’ve never looked at child porn either, but I’ve read a bit by Peter Sotos, who has been arrested for possessing child porn and writes about it in great detail. I’m not sure about his personal preferences, and wouldn’t support him doing anything to kids, but I also think it’s good that someone is out there thinking about that stuff in a way no one else is—exploring ideas of why it exists and what it does. I think people immediately turn their brains off when they hear shocking keywords like “child porn” or “rape” and almost act as if they want to pretend it doesn’t exist. I think being open to thinking about things while also knowing they are wrong is important to not only understanding the world, but to intellect. Like anyone who could get that upset about Piss Christ, no matter what god means to them, I’d question their emotional intelligence.
People don’t like when I talk abut this (a friend once dragged me by the arm from a house, because I was offending the host), but whenever that show To Catch a Predator comes on I find myself not “rooting for,” but kind of sympathizing with the “predators” instead of Chris Hansen and his camera crew. In Germany they have billboards with phone numbers to call where you can seek help if you are attracted to children. That is what you call civilization. On To Catch a Predator the cops get online, flirt with lonely men, and lure them onto national TV. And it’s not like the children are eight or nine. They’re like 15 or 16, which in a lot of countries is not against the law. Wow, this is hard to talk about without sounding like a fucking creep. OK, I know that what the men are doing is wrong, and pedophilia is bad, but how about, “Hello. We’re here to offer you help” instead of “I’m Chris Hansen and you’re on NBC. Care to tell us why you’re such a sad and awful loser whose life is now going to be a hundred times worse since you’re going to jail and when you get out you won’t have anyone waiting on you since you’re a child rapist?” You know? Pedophiles do not choose to be pedophiles. Who would choose that? Did you choose to be into whatever it is you’re into? Because I definitely didn’t choose to be into what I’m into. I am only grateful that it falls on the right side of the law. I have this deep sympathy with pedophiles, especially the ones who make it through their entire lives without ever acting on it. That is a lot of repressing.
Why Is the Guy Behind 2 Girls 1 Cup Going to Jail?
You probably don’t know the name Ira Issacs, but I bet you can remember the first time you saw a girl poop into a cup on camera, hand it to another girl who started eating the poop and vomiting, then the girls kissed a bunch and poop went everywhere. Right? Well, Ira Issacs is the guy who produced and distributed the infamous 2 Girls 1 Cup, and he’s been sentenced to 48 months in jail for “producing and selling obscene videos and distributing obscene videos.” According to the United States’ Department of Justice, Ira was also charged in relation to another 37 minute video wherein “a female engaged in sex acts with animals.” The jury stated that Ira’s work had no “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” Well, yeah, no shit.
For a lot of you reading this, it may seem a bit strange that the production of a video where two girls poop and kiss can be deemed illegal, let alone worthy of four years in jail. Who was hurt? There’s nothing in any of the Department of Justice reports that say these girls were being filmed against their will, so who cares? Apparently, Ira’s case was initiated by the Department of Justice’s “Obscenity Prosecution Task Force,” (OPTF for short) a group that was founded in 2005 during George Dubya’s administration at the behest of conservative religious groups.
Ira Issacs is not the only target that has gone down at the hands of the OPTF. In 2005, Max Hardcore, a controversial pornographer who has depicted women over the age of 18 as underage girls, had his offices raided while he was at a porno convention in Barcelona. He was charged with five counts of obscenity andsent to jail for 46 months. While the content of Max Hardcore’s porn probably makes a lot of people feel nauseous, and it definitely makes the OPTF feel angry, confused, and ready to prosecute, it’s hard to rationalize why his work would warrant jail time. Clearly, the OPTF’s prosecutions are based on subjective conservative morals and are placing limits on the capabilities of free speech, however gross and grotesque free speech may get.