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.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: