In the labyrinthine economy of prison life, where smokes are exchanged for coffee, candy for yesterday morning's biscuit, and sexual favors for just about anything, a collection of Hustlers can be a ticket to living well, or at least better.
That ticket was canceled for federal prisoners in December, when a congressional prison-smut ban took effect. Inmates have deluged the American Civil Liberties Union with letters, spawning an as-yet-unpublicized ACLU lawsuit that lawyers expect will reach the Supreme Court.
But in California state prisons, where jailers have been throwing out prisoners' Penthouse, Hustler, and Playboy subscriptions for two years now, lonely cons have nary a friend.
While the Golden State is awash in prisoners' rights, civil rights, and other underdog-friendly lawyers, they all seem acutely able to see both sides of the porn-in-prison question. And are loath to litigate it.
"It may be the issue that hits prisoners most closely, emotionally," says Alison Hardy, staff attorney at the Prison Law Office near San Quentin. "But it doesn't hit closely to us."
The office has such a successful history of litigating against prison abuse that the ACLU often cedes California prison issues to it, and neither the ACLU's L.A. nor San Francisco office has looked at the legal implications of prison censorship of inmates' porn.
"Our time is limited, and we have tons of issues that hit us viscerally. I mean, we're working on cases of prisoners who are mentally retarded," says Hardy. "For us, it's not a big issue.
For many prisoners, though, the issue is enormous. And there are valid questions about how prisons decide what is acceptable and what is not. Inmates describe skin mags as a precious means of escape from the pain, grief, and solitude of imprisonment, and as one of the few pleasures available in an otherwise austere existence. The publishers of Prison Life, which has 30,000 subscribers inside and outside of prisons, plan to devote a feature article to the federal porn ban next month, as does Hustler, the standard-bearer of smut among prison porn aficionados.
And the Prison Law Office has its own stack of inmate letters. They were written to protest a California Department of Corrections policy that allows individual jailers to determine which magazines are "obscene," and thus destined to be destroyed.
"These scum want to take my Playboy, Penthouse and Hustler away," writes convict columnist Ask Bubba in the current issue of Prison Life. "What am I supposed to do? I get so fucking pissed off at these people for the way they fuck with me relentlessly."
State prisons in California began weeding out pornography two years ago after Gov. Pete Wilson signed prison austerity bills amid a wave of public sentiment that criminals were taking comfort in penitentiary life.
The laws narrowed the Inmates Bill of Rights -- a 1968 legacy of former Gov. Ronald Reagan -- and ended a brief California era of at least limited civil rights for prisoners. The Wilson laws allowed prisons to prohibit conjugal visits for some murderers, curtail exercise privileges for most prisoners, charge prisoners for non-emergency doctor's visits, and ban pornography.
As for its specific policy on pornography, the California Department of Corrections will only say that it bans material deemed to impede the smooth running of its prison system, such as booklets describing how to escape from prison and material judged on a case-by-case basis to be obscene.
But there's the catch. California's prison system has concocted its own official idea of obscenity. It goes well beyond the Supreme Court's definition designed to keep the raunchiest pornographers from using U.S. mail. Prisoners could never get their hands on truly obscene magazines unless guards personally hand-delivered them from the outside: No one, whether prisoner or professor, can legally get obscene material through the mail.
By lowering the obscenity bar, state prisons ban all but the tamest stuff such as Playboy and Penthouse, and often seize them as well.
That's an outrage, says Ray Hill, a man uniquely qualified to speak for porn-starved inmates. An ex-con based in Houston, Hill works as a lobbyist for the sex industry -- video producers, dirty-book shops, and the like -- and hosts a weekly prison-issues radio show on KPFA's sister station, KPFT in Texas.
As a longtime prison rights activist and the man who spearheaded the defeat of a Texas state prison porn ban, Hill's name is well-known among convicts' families, despite his seemingly cynical day job. He talks the kind of feet-on-the-ground liberalism that Southern leftists and intellectuals say distinguishes them from their West Coast, pie-in-the-sky brethren.
To Hill's manner of thinking, mainstream smut provides a healthy alternative to the bizarre sexual fantasies inmates tend to generate after years in the joint.
"The issue is, how normal do you want people to be when they get out," says Hill. "Prisons are not natural places, so everything takes on a subtle, complicated nature. Do you want them to have any fantasy sexual life with a normal sexual response? You can sexually imagine doing things that are physically impossible. Pornography at least reinforces fantasy about a normal sexual life."
The ban also tramples the First Amendment, says Jason Flores Williams, an Oakland correspondent for Hustler and Prison Life.
"People I've spoken with at Hustler magazine are frustrated by it," says Flores Williams, whose father is doing time in Texas. "It's wrong. This is an overt assault on their First Amendment rights."
Perhaps, says Ned Rollo, a Dallas-based prisoners' rights advocate who is assembling a pilot program to help California ex-cons adjust to life outside.
While he acknowledges that censoring prisoners' mail violates their civil rights, Rollo says jailers may have cause to keep some porn out of some cells.
The fact that most prisoners are virile young men deprived of normal sexual activity adds a constant edge of danger to life in the joint. Rather than bringing them down to earth, raunchy books and magazines could exaggerate some prisoners' sexual obsessiveness, he suggests.
"During the first 18 to 36 months, you're reaching down into your memories, and projecting into your fantasies, and reaching down into why you should sustain hope. That sexual part of you is just a matter of trying to keep in touch with yourself," says Rollo, a former inmate at the Louisiana State pen.
"You can masturbate, or if you have a sick side, you start raping people," he says. "My fear, off the top of my head, is that the presence and use of pornography in prison could either be trivial and unimportant, or it could be something that could lead to prisoner-on-prisoner abuse."
Certainly self-abuse. But that prison pastime won't likely abate, even without porn, says Prison Life Editor Vance Williams.
"Everybody will have to beat off with-out a girl magazine in front of them," he says.