During his 16-year on-again, off-again affiliation with the Illinois Department of Corrections, Ron Campbell went from delinquent armed robber to jailhouse propagandist. He did five turns in the stir–for breaking into houses, setting fires, smoking pot, and stealing a van. During the last two he wrote and edited Constipation, a sardonic zine that carried his and other prisoners’ words beyond the prison walls.
The high point of Constipation’s ten-issue run was a “Vacation Getaway Offer,” a mock ad satirizing the state’s push to fill prison beds. Resort packages included “Ecstasy in East Moline” and “Mixin’ in Dixon (coed!),” and the ad noted, “For those without adequate funds, consult with your local public defender’s office for availability. In most cases, those without funds can get in quickly, and stay longer!”
While in prison Campbell always kept a journal, but he didn’t start writing his zine until 1993, when he was in Stateville on a burglary rap. Hungry for reading material, he started a correspondence with Books to Prisoners, a leftist organization that mailed him novels, radical political books, and zines. He consumed three books a week, discovered Emma Goldman, embraced anarchism, and decided the world needed to hear from a man living under the heel of the system. He typed up his screeds in the library, then mailed them to a pen pal in Seattle, who made photocopies and sent them to a network of other anarchist prisoners around the country.
“I felt that it was important that people realize I’m just a regular person–under different circumstances,” says the gangly 39-year-old ex-con. “I laugh. I cry. I felt there were a lot of misconceptions about prisoners. I’m not a talker. I write what I feel. It gave me the feeling that people would actually get to know me.”
One of the stories Campbell told in the pages of Constipation was his own. He’d run away from his home in Canaryville when he was 13 and spent his adolescence in psychiatric facilities, receiving treatment for paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and impulse-control problems. In 1980, when he was 17, he was sent to juvenile detention for breaking into a VFW hall. Three years later he was in prison for burglary.
Constipation’s first run ended when Campbell got out of Stateville in 1997. It was a short hiatus. He found a job in construction, then stole the company van. He was sentenced to 47 months and sent to maximum-security Menard, where he was locked in his cell 22 hours a day. He spent most of his time “either reading or writing,” and he revived his zine.
This time around he got it published by South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, which is headquartered in the family room of Anthony Rayson, a south suburban anarchist, tollbooth attendant, and “prison abolitionist” who also happens to be the son of the late liberal state representative Leland Rayson. Anthony, author of the anarchist zine Thought Bombs, publishes around 250 radical zines, which are sold in underground bookstores and mailed free to 300 or so prisoners across America, who pass them “up and down the cell blocks.”
“This is the samizdat press of America,” says Rayson, comparing prison zines to the mimeographs passed around by Soviet dissidents. “This is so underground the underground doesn’t want to deal with it. Prisoners are demonized. They’re the Untermenschen.”
For prisoners, who are banned from the Internet and limited to a few phone calls a week, words on paper are still the main form of communication with the outside world. That’s why so many of them write for zines. “Almost any anarchist zine is going to have writing by prisoners,” says Campbell. “The number of prisoners doing writing has skyrocketed, and I think this is the reason.”
In solitary confinement at Menard, Campbell became more reflective. In one issue of Constipation he wrote an essay titled “Personal Prisons,” in which he flayed himself for “the years of my life I’ve wasted within these walls. I’ve been told more than once that I’m doing life on the installment plan.” He also described his conflicts with the Northsiders, a “racist bonehead” gang that had tried to recruit him. He agitated for a recycling program and did an editorial, “The Plug-In Guard,” suggesting that TV be banned from prison. “I’ve seen firsthand how it turns intelligent, lively, interesting people into dozed automatons,” he wrote. “Books collect dust, conversations are virtually nonexistent.”
Campbell once caught flak for posting flyers around the Big Muddy Correctional Center in downstate Ina that demanded “dignity and respect” from the guards. But the authorities never hassled him about Constipation. IDOC spokesman Brian Fairchild says inmates have First Amendment rights, and prison officials can’t censor written materials unless they’re pornographic “or anything that would be a threat to the security of the institution, such as an article on how to defeat handcuffs or manufacture prison hooch.”
Constipation’s latest run ended in 2001, when Campbell got out on parole. He swears that this time he’s retired from crime. “I’m burned out,” he says. “The younger crowd can have that.”
He’s had plenty of successors. In the past decade Illinois’ prison population has gone up a third, to 43,000. Constipation has had plenty of successors too. South Chicago ABC Zine Distro’s latest prison title is the 80-page The Railroading of Chicago Native Son by Richard M. Flood, an ironworker and ex-Latin King who’s doing ten years in Menard for stabbing two men he claims attacked his wife at a pay phone. His zine tells a classic prison story: he grew up tough on the streets of Humboldt Park, the son of a “drunken Irish ironworker” and a mother he would often see “coming out of or going into some neighborhood tavern, always with a different man.” He started cutting school at eight and was adopted into the “psychological family” of a gang. And he insists the charges against him are BS. (As a cynical prosecutor once said, “Everyone in prison is innocent–just ask them.”)
Flood became a prison activist during a previous sentence for armed robbery, writing articles for Thought Bombs and the magazine Socialism and Democracy. During a brief parole, in 2000 and 2001, he and Rayson talked about collaborating on a newsletter aimed at steering gangbangers away from prison.
Flood’s political language is more sophisticated than that of most inmates. How many cons would title an autobiographical sketch “The Re-Birth of Humanity in a Pathological Capitalistic Society” or fill it with quotations from John Dewey and Sir Walter Scott? Flood is a self-made man of letters, educated in public libraries and prison cells. In his “Re-Birth” essay he writes, “It was in these dark dungeons that somehow I rose above the insanity–mine as well as others’–and realized that it was up to me to make the change. I had always enjoyed reading and was fortunate enough to have someone I knew from my neighborhood working in the hole as a runner. He introduced me to Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Guevara, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Confucius, Sun Tzu, Lao Tzu, Buddha and a host of others.”
Flood doesn’t watch TV or read the newspaper. Several years ago he wrote to Rayson after seeing one of his zines, and he’s been on the comp list ever since. Zines are his news source, his soapbox, his political network. “I build relationships with the people who make these zines,” he says. “I like to think we’re comrades in a common cause.”
He’d find a comrade in Campbell, who’s now living with a friend in West Rogers Park and doing odd jobs, such as riding shotgun on a recycling truck. With Rayson’s encouragement, he’s joined the Anarchist Black Cross, a radical cell that meets at the Autonomous Zone. He’s writing an article on life after prison for the group’s zine. It’s a topic he may never escape. “Prison’s been such a big part of my life,” he says. “It’s only natural I do something with prisons.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.