STORY OF VIETNAM ERA’S PREMIER PRISONERS’ RIGHTS UNDERGROUND PAPER: You Don’t Want to Miss This One

It would be sheer understatement for me to praise Joe Grant’s prison bio as “groundbreaking,” “moving,” or “eye-opening.” It is all these things, but certainly much more…. This is journalism, of a kind that never made it into the curriculum of J-School. This ain’t your grandmama’s New York Times. This is the real stuff. Grant gives us all a bird’s-eye view of how prisons ran during the ‘60s and ‘70s, and gives us a glimpse of what might have been, before the prison reform movement fell into the black hole of the corrections industry, and the culture of mass fear emerged.

—Mumia Abu-Jamal, award-winning journalist and former Black Panther Party member, in the foreword to Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off!, written while living on death row in Pennsylvania prison

Volume 4 of the Voices from the Underground Series, Joe Grant’s Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off!: A Brief History of the Prisoners’ Digest International, is out. In my last post I made the same announcement but then talked about the series as a whole. After twenty-five years of work, I felt I had earned the right to reflect.

But now I want to talk about volume 4. If you have not read any of the stories in the previous three volumes, fear not. This one is as good a place to start as any. (There’s always time to pick up the earlier three.)

Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off! is Joe Grant’s story of how he came to publish the most important prisoners’ rights underground newspaper of the Vietnam era—and possibly of all time. And what a great story Joe tells. As with all great memoirs, it’s much more than that. Most of the contributors to the Voices from the Underground Series were baby boomers who devoted our adult coming-of-age years to working on the underground press while we opposed the war. But Joe was from an earlier generation. His story begins in pre-Revolutionary Cuba in 1953 during the Korean War at a time when he was serving in the navy and many of us had not yet begun pre-school.

It takes us through his years as publisher of a rank-and-file newspaper, then into Leavenworth.

“Back then,” Joe writes, the feds “used Leavenworth for the truly incorrigible.”

Leavenworth was where they sent the prisoners when they closed Alcatraz.

Stepping into that prison and becoming part of it reminded me of the opening paragraph of 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.

It was in this atmosphere that the idea began to take shape for Prisoners’ Digest International (originally called Penal Digest International), 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.

He got out of jail in December 1969 and settled in Iowa City to begin attending classes at Iowa State University. An assistantship through the communications department enabled him to spend the summer of 1970 travelling through Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas tape recording prisoners and law enforcement personnel for a series of half-hour radio shows. Naturally he shared his vision with everyone he could. His effort paid off. By the time he returned to Iowa City, articles had arrived in the mail from prison newspaper editors, poets, artists, and others all over the country. One interviewee was Sarah T. Hughes, the federal judge who had administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson while “Jackie, stunned and bloodied, looked on” after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Judge Hughes provided a feature article for the front page of the first issue.

But articles, poems, and artwork alone weren’t enough to produce a paper. Joe’s vision and his infectious energy pulled together a distinguished board of prison reformers and advocates, lawyers, and patrons who served multiple purposes, perhaps most important of which were credibility, connections, and cash to produce a shoestring operation. At the same time, he attracted—and writes lovingly about—a devoted collective of ex-cons, community folks, neighbor kids, and out-of-town visitors, including Jerry Samuels, who, under the name Napoleon XIV, wrote and sang “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha”—and me, I might add.

The first PDI came out in spring 1971. During the PDI’s brief history, Joe and the collective did more than just publish stories and poems from prisoners—which by itself would have made for a proud legacy. As with the best of the Vietnam era’s underground newspapers, they made news—and then reported on it. They stopped the extradition of an Arkansas escapee, ended an innocent Indian boy’s six years in prison, bought a college, exposed behavior-modification experiments on prisoners through insider stories of surviving inmates, shared victories and defeats of jailhouse lawyers, advocated for improvements in prison medical facilities for men and women, stood up for prisoners outside Attica before the guards stormed the prison, and much more.

Along the way Joe shares other stories as well:

  • about meeting and befriending Cuban revolutionaries in pre-Castro Cuba;
  • about the first and only underground newspaper produced inside the walls of Leavenworth, under Joe’s leadership;
  • about the financial support he received for PDI from labor legend Jimmy Hoffa and Playboy magazine; and
  • about the time during the mid-thirties, at the height of the Depression, when Joe was just a tyke, when his beloved mother, Magda Christine, took a young female singer named Norma Deloris Egstrom, who was renting a room next to theirs, under her wings when she was a struggling runaway teenager. That young singer later adopted the first name of Joe’s mom—who was known as Peggy—and the middle name of his brother, Duane Lee. You may have heard of her: Peggy Lee.

The last PDI came out in spring of 1974, though it was dated December 1973. As Joe writes, “Had our own burnout and financial failure not brought us down when it did, the government was standing by with an elaborate plan that they were already developing. It’s an ending to the story that I must share with you.”

So I’ll let him. Get yourself a copy of this funny, energizing, inspirational, important story.

Volume 4 of Voices Series Is Out!

Volume 4 of the four-volume Voices from the Underground Series, Joe Grant’s Stop the Presses! I Want to Get Off: A Brief History of the Prisoners’ Digest International, is now out. I received my author copies last week and immediately ordered my first shipment for resale. Pre-orders were shipped out yesterday and should arrive in a few days. In my next post, I’ll give an overview of the book.

But for now I want to talk about the series as a whole, which is its own story. It’s been an amazing adventure that goes back a quarter of a century. If someone had said to me, “Ken, how about editing a series of stories on what will be seen commercially as an esoteric topic that will be hostile to the mainstream publishing world, rendering your chances of successful publication precarious, and that will take twenty-five years to complete?,” I’d have laughed and walked away. Or I would have politely pointed out my shaky financial straits and noted the infeasibility of spending so much potential income-producing time on a project that might never come to fruition let alone produce income.

Fortunately, I had no idea it would take me so long because once I started I couldn’t stop. Momentum is a powerful force; once you have the vision, you can’t pretend you don’t without resorting to mind-deadening drugs, which I’ve never used.

And the truth was, that esoteric topic from the late eighties when the Voices from the Underground Series was born—the long-forgotten underground press of the Vietnam era—was the most important news medium and antiwar organizing tool of my generation’s formative years. The antiwar community during the Vietnam era was the broadest, most diverse antiwar community in the history of our country. No exceptions. It cut across the races, the genders, the ages, the classes, the geographic regions. And there were underground papers that spoke to all of those antiwar voices.

To those of us who were active on underground papers, it was our most important formative event. We boomers have been unfairly derided for being self-centered, spoiled, divisive, and pampered, but we were selfless in stopping a war that we didn’t start, that had no business being waged, and of which our own government was the enemy. No other generation has ever done that. For that we were heroes, except to the war profiteers who ran our country and still do; the elected officials who they bought with their campaign donations; and the corporate press whose mindless support for the war was the reason the underground press was born.

So while many antiwar veterans and their allies “went inside themselves” after the war, partly through burnout from being full-time antiwar activists and partly so they could enter the corporate work force and begin raising families, the war industry rolled up their sleeves and began the work of getting us back into the military mood. (Remember what Bush #1 said when the fighting stopped after he invaded Iraq for the first time: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”) By the time the late eighties rolled around, the country had freaked out from seeing our true soul ripped bare and believing the corporate media’s interpretation, and we collectively had swung way to the right. Reagan was president and members of my generation who had fought alongside me against the war machine were running from themselves, hiding who they were, even from their children. My students at Eastern Michigan University typified the younger generation of the time. They admired Reagan, thought Rush Limbaugh made sense, and had no idea what their parents had done during the war.

It was in that atmosphere that a publisher friend who ran a small stable of library journals, including one devoted to the needs of serials librarians, asked me—because I had written a history of the Lansing-East Lansing, Michigan-area underground press some years back—to edit a series of insider histories of underground papers so that young serials librarians would gain a better understanding of serials from the sixties and seventies. I embraced the opportunity and immediately began to reactivate and expand my network of underground press veterans. The special collections libraries at University of Michigan and Michigan State University were invaluable.

What I found, much to my delight, was a scattered community of proud activists, like me, who had never forsaken their radical, activist roots and were still passionately involved in the cause of building a progressive community in the United States. They embraced my invitation to share their stories. In all the years since the Vietnam War had ended, no one had ever asked them so they were sitting on priceless literary and historical material. My job was to read and edit their stories and then coax them to give me more: “What do you mean by that?” “Who is she?” “Please clarify.” “How did you feel then?” “What happened next?” I asked every question I could think of and then asked follow-up questions in response to their answers. Never did they say, “Hey, that’s enough already.” Instead they dug deeper and produced more material.

The result was over 600 pages of stories, laid out in an 8 ½ x 11, 2-column format, the equivalent of a 1,500-page book in the traditional 6 x 9 or 7 x 10 format, plus another 150 pages, same layout, of resource materials on the period. Instead of publishing one special issue, we ran articles for the next year and a half.

Even then, I had compiled a collection that was so massive some stories still remained unpublished. I knew we had to publish them all in book form—actually two books, one of the stories and one of the resource materials.

Unfortunately, my publisher friend balked. He began to worry that he would be sued for libel. Being a small publisher who had already gone nearly bankrupt twice to win two previous libel lawsuits, he was scared he wouldn’t survive another one, even if he won, despite the great publicity I told him he would get. His worst image was of a guy who had been a flaming SDS’er—a member of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society—twenty years ago and was now a bigwig in the Republican Party suing us for ruining his reputation.

I said, “If we can document it, it’s not libel.” But I knew my time with him was up.

I started looking for a new publisher.

I found an agent who loved the manuscript. He was talking a high five-figure advance and claiming the movie rights. “I just want to pay off the Visa,” I said.

So he sent it out to corporate publishers. Here’s what they said:

  • “an important collection of underground press histories….”
  • “an impressive piece of scholarship…”
  • One editor apologized for taking so long to return the manuscript. He said he “was busy reading it.”
  • Another said, “couldn’t put it down … extraordinary book … rave rejection.”

They loved it. But they didn’t want to publish it.

Being an agent, he was in it for the money, not the cause. He returned the manuscript and suggested that I approach a small press. I thought, if I have to go to a small press, I might as well become the press. And so I knew: to be able to tell the story of the underground press, I would need to create my own underground press all over again.

All I needed was $18,000.

It fell to Joe Grant to find an investor. Joe is an ex-prisoner from Leavenworth who in 1970 founded Penal Digest International [later Prisoners’ Digest International], an underground paper with a paid circulation of over 20,000 prisoners from all over the world. Joe was outside Attica Prison with William Kunstler, the most renowned movement lawyer of the period, during the riots there in 1971. His story begins in pre-revolutionary Cuba in 1952 when he was stationed there in the navy and met Cubans who were actively involved in the revolution.

I was working on Joe’s story with him during the time my agent was sending me the rejection letters, so he knew my whole story.

Joe found an investor to enable him to print 2,000 copies of volume one and 2,000 of volume two. We typeset it and laid it out ourselves on WordPerfect 5.1. We obtained pre-publication quotes from famous people saying nice things about us. Our logo was a white rose, in memory of a group of students in Nazi Germany named the White Rose who opposed Hitler and were killed for their convictions. In this way, we linked our generation of independent poets and writers to an earlier generation of independent poets and writers. We called the company Mica Press after the gentle and legendary Mica—which is what he changed his name to from Michael in the eighties—Kindman, who died of AIDS soon after completing his story for me, which in this second edition is volume 2 of the Voices from the Underground Series, My Odyssey through the Underground Press. We had a collective dedication page for all the contributors. Our copyright date was January 29, 1993, to commemorate the 156th birthday of Thomas Paine.

The book came out to great acclaim. The Los Angeles Times said it captured the sights and feel and texture of the period better than any book out there. The reviewer for In These Times called it the most important book on American journalism published in his lifetime. Choice magazine named it one of the top five books in the field of communication for 1993. I was giving keynote talks at political conferences.

But for the most part, the nationwide mainstream media, including most of the over 200 dailies that requested and received copies, didn’t review it. And so overall sales through the mail were modest. Most went to public and academic libraries around the world. We were beginning to build our own distribution network. The money from sales I sent back to Joe was absorbed in promotional costs.

Then, less than a year after the book hit the streets, Joe’s remaining inventory of books were confiscated from storage by the man whose mother gave Joe the money to print Voices. He claimed Joe ripped off his mother and demanded all the money back immediately.

After the man confiscated the books, his lawyer told Joe that all the books would be returned to him if he would sign a promissory note stating that he had received the money from the son and not the mother. However, since the son was a drug dealer and informer who was doing time for selling cocaine, Joe believed that signing such a note would implicate him and everything connected with Voices. All his computers and his business would be seized by the government.

In a letter to me, the son acknowledged he made a mistake (getting busted for drugs, not stealing the books from Joe) but insisted that he was really a good person who would love to share his ideas with me on how to market Voices. Joe said bullshit. “He wore a government wire when he sold his drugs to unsuspecting users,” Joe told me. “That’s general knowledge. He’s in prison because he was running a drug business on the side that the government only discovered when he sold drugs, with his wire turned off, to another informer who had his wire turned on.” Joe believed the government was after him—Joe, not the son—for past political activity and when they couldn’t get him they settled for the books. Nothing of their business arrangement was ever put down on paper.

Joe and I, however, did. As publisher he agreed that if Mica Press went out of business, I, as editor, would automatically inherit all outstanding copies. Those, of course, were the books that were confiscated.

So technically that left me in ownership of 1,000 copies of volume 1, the stories, and 1,000 copies of volume 2, the resource guide, but in possession of none of them. I did own and possess all rights to the collection.

I considered legal action against the guy who stole them but I was discouraged by well-meaning movement lawyers who warned me that, even if I could get pro bono legal help from a movement lawyer who believed in the cause, the other costs—legal briefs, travel, appeals, and others—would be so much that, even if I won and then sold all the books, I would never see financial daylight. By this time I had a growing family and a heavy debt load, which further demanded my attention.

So I reacted like any hyperactive with depressive tendencies would react. I went into a depression that took me years to climb out of. Along the way, I lost contact with my contributors. But I never lost the conviction that the stories deserved to come out again, and needed to, for a wider audience.

Today I believe that more passionately than ever before. It’s no mistake that in order to start new wars the power structure that runs this country wanted to bury the lessons of the Vietnam era, especially the one that says that common citizens, working together, can overcome our ingrained prejudices; respect our ethnic, gender, religious, and other differences; honor the environment; change the policies of a corporate-controlled war-machine government; bring our troops home from countries where we don’t belong or not send them there in the first place; and use the money we save to build our own country’s infrastructure and create services and jobs that help everyone, not just the 1%.

Five years ago I finally was able to reorganize my life to make room for a second attempt to publish the stories. My success was due to many factors.

I’m grateful to the Internet, without which there is no way I could have tracked down all of the contributors. I’m grateful to all of the writers for giving me permission to use their stories again and working patiently with me to update their stories, which by now were all dated. I’m grateful to the many photographers and artists who gave me permission to use their work, more often than not gratis. I’m grateful to Michigan State University Press for buying into my vision of changing the 600+-page volume of stories from the first edition into four separate volumes in this second revised, updated, expanded edition, and for their craftsmanship in producing the four volumes. I’m grateful to so many activists and progressive journalists from then and now for their kind words, in the forewords and afterwords to the four volumes, in reviews, and in testimonial quotes that appear on the back covers and on my website. I’m grateful to all of those restaurants that gave me unlimited booth space, electricity, and coffee to do so much of my work. I’m grateful to my friends and family for giving me encouragement. Most of all, I am grateful to Emily, David, and Carrie, who for many years didn’t have much of a husband or father because he was lost in a competing vision of love and despair and had to find his way out alone.

CHOICE Review of Mica Kindman’s Story, V.2 of Voices Series

I can’t find an accessible electronic link to this review of Michael “Mica” Kindman’s book, My Odyssey through the Underground Press, which is volume 2 in the Voices from the Underground Series, but I’m grateful to CHOICE for permission to reprint it here. It appears in the August 2012 issue.

In this posthumously published autobiographical account, Kindman (who died in 1991) details his involvement with the underground press and culture and brings to the fore a long-missed voice of the 1960s and beyond. As a Michigan State University student, Kindman established The Paper, a weekly underground newspaper and in 1966 one of the founding publications of the nation’s Underground Press Syndicate. Paul Krassner’s outstanding foreword provides context for Kindman’s story and underground newspapers across the nation like Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Barb, San Francisco Oracle, Seattle’s The Helix, and New York’s The East Village Other. The book itself also features excerpts from letters and newspaper articles. As a well-researched, well-edited firsthand account of the US underground press from its formative to it later years, this book complements John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in the United States (2011), but Kindman offers more details about the beginnings of this kind of news media. A good resource for anyone interested in underground-media history and counterculture. Summing Up: Highly Recommended. All readers. — M. Goldsmith,Nicholls State University (Reprinted with permission from CHOICE http://www.cro2.org,  copyright by the American Library Association. )