Maya Schenwar

80,000 Americans Are Trapped in Solitary Confinement - We Must Speak Out on Their Behalf

[Editor's Note: The United States holds more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day. Hell Is a Very Small Place collects firsthand accounts describing the miserable realities of life in solitary and showing how isolated people hold on to their humanity and even build solidarity with those next to whom they are incarcerated, without ever meeting face-to-face.]

Keep reading... Show less

America Has Become One Giant Prison

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

Keep reading... Show less

What If We Abolished Prisons?

The following is an excerpt from Maya Schenwar's new book,  Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn't Work and How We Can Do Better (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2014).  Reprinted here with permission.

Keep reading... Show less

Child Detainees Battle an Unforgiving System Alone

Undocumented children entering the US alone must confront barriers that extend far beyond the border. If apprehended, they're met with a sometimes-brutal detention period, followed by a trial under a legal system that treats them the same as apprehended adults, according to children's rights advocates and recent reports by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General's Office (OIG) and the Government Accountability Office.

OIG estimates that more than 10,000 unaccompanied and undocumented children will be detained this year, not counting children who are immediately deported upon contact with Homeland Security. Most travel from Mexico or Central America. Kids migrate alone for some of the same reasons that adults do: to reunite with family or to escape persecution. Many have experienced child-specific threats, like assault by youth gangs and recruitment for special roles in organized crime, according to Sarnata Reynolds, director of the Refugee Program at Amnesty International USA. A smaller percentage, driven by devastating poverty, come to find work.

Children apprehended at the border are taken to Border Patrol stations, frequently remaining in concrete cell blocks for days on end and sometimes being transferred repeatedly to different stations before being handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to Michelle Brane, director of the Detention and Asylum Program at the Women's Commission, who has extensively investigated the treatment of unaccompanied children. Children are then placed in more permanent facilities to wait for their court dates.

"Generally before their placement, they're held in bad conditions," Brane told Truthout, noting that children are often not informed of their legal situation or what the future will bring. Although the OIG notes that 84 percent of children are placed within three days, some wait for much longer, especially during the Resettlement Office's "high season," when the system may see a backlog.

Children are eventually placed in foster care, shelters or "secure" or "staff-secure" facilities (the equivalents of juvenile detention centers). According to Brane's findings, the secure facilities are overused: due to inadequate, hurried evaluations, children with behavior or mental problems that could be otherwise resolved are often sent to "secure" detention centers.

Detention Conditions

Abuse and neglect within secure facilities are not uncommon. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal agency, recently filed lawsuits against two detention centers that were committing "egregious abuses" against unaccompanied undocumented children, Legal Aid attorney Erica Schommer told Truthout.

Eight immigrant youths suing the Abraxas Hector Garza Treatment Center in San Antonio describe being beaten repeatedly, so severely that several required hospitalization. The abuse continued even after it was reported to their caretakers' supervisors. In Nixon, Texas, ten detained young people filing a Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid lawsuit allege repeated assault and retaliation upon reporting the abuse. Of course, most abused detainees do not have access to pro bono lawyers and cannot hope to sue; much more often than not, their stories go untold.

According to a June report by the Government Accountability Office, child detainees are not immune to the neglect suffered by their adult counterparts, widely publicized earlier this month. The report cites the example of the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center in Washington State, where, despite federal mandates, "no medical screening was performed at admission and first aid kits were not available, as required." The facility also ignored requirements to maintain minors' medical records on site.

For the most part, however, the facilities' violations are kept from the public eye - and the eye of the federal government doesn't see much of them either, according to a recent OIG report noting that "interviews with Department of Unaccompanied Children's Services central office officials indicate that little oversight of facilities occurs." Federal officials aren't required to meet with children when they visit the facilities, so direct feedback is next to nonexistent.

"Severe allegations of abuse have gone uninvestigated," Reynolds told Truthout.

A lack of oversight is especially dangerous when it comes to children, she said, because they are much less likely than adults to speak out for themselves.

"Children are incredibly vulnerable - they're completely subject to the adults in charge," Reynolds said. "These kids are already feeling a lot of victimization. The last thing they need is for the detention process to subject them to further victimization."

Moreover, documentation on health care provided to detained kids is almost universally sparse, due to either "poor record-keeping" or "failure to provide services," according to the OIG. More than half of the children's medical case files lack a required assessment of their needs, and all case files are missing at least one mandatory document describing care the children received.

Some minors' situations are subject to particularly little oversight. Children whose "unaccompanied" status is questionable remain in Homeland Security custody after being apprehended, instead of being transferred to the Resettlement Office. Brane emphasizes the extraordinary absence of transparency when it comes to these kids, who may be detained indefinitely in prison-like facilities, invisible to the outside world.

"We don't know who they are or where they are," Brane said. "Most of them are kept in juvenile detention facilities meant for criminals. There's so little transparency that we haven't been able to speak to any of those children."

The Legal Wall

While detained, unaccompanied children sit in waiting for their court date, which will follow a set of legal standards exactly mirroring standards for adult detainees. This means that, when it comes to demonstrating their eligibility for asylum in the US, the children themselves hold the burden of proof.

Seventy percent of the time, these children are not provided with legal representation, according to the Women's Commission's findings, which are backed up by a 2007 Congressional Research Service report. Often, the children are not even given the chance to consult with counsel beforehand to learn their rights and the legal standards on which their cases will be decided.

However, Reynolds noted, the government is backed up by attorneys. Thus, many times an immigration judge is deciding a case between government officials armed with lawyers and an unrepresented child who speaks no English.

Although non-English-speaking defendants are always provided with an interpreter, the translator often only interprets what the judge needs to hear to decide the case, according to Brane. Kids are often left wondering the definitions of most of the words spoken in the courtroom - a reality that is not only frightening for children, but also detrimental to their chances of providing a complete testimony that addresses the claims of the governmental representatives.

Qualifications for asylum are complicated, especially for a minor unfamiliar with the US legal system. Immigrants must clearly recount the risks they would face upon returning to their home country. Kids often don't know how to articulate those dangers, according to Reynolds. For example, a child may know that he or she is being targeted by violent men, but may not understand that those men are members of a paramilitary group singling out the family based on political affiliations.

Plus, not knowing whether their testimonies will be kept confidential, children are often hesitant to speak, especially if they have been persecuted in their home country, Reynolds noted.

"Many have more than one fear, and may be afraid to talk about any of them," she said. "They don't understand what will happen to them if they tell their story."

Congress Ramps Up Fight Against Permanent Iraq Bases

Antiwar Democrats in Congress have failed in almost every one of their attempts to reverse the Bush administration's Iraq policy. However, they are now pursuing what many call a winnable objective: resisting the establishment of a permanent US presence in Iraq.

In late November, President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed a "Declaration of Principles" setting the stage for long-term, open-ended US military and economic involvement in Iraq.

Later, in a January signing statement attached to a defense policy bill, Bush declared that he would disregard a ban on permanent US military bases in Iraq.

Since then, Bush and Maliki have been moving forward with negotiations on the terms of their agreement, with conversations taking place "largely in secret," according to Sameer Dossani, director of 50 Years Is Enough: US Network for Global Economic Justice. The administration says that a more definitive agreement will be reached "within six months," according to Dossani.

Yet, two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration would not seek permanent bases in Iraq, contradicting the sentiments of Bush's signing statement and the Declaration of Principles.

The administration's denial doesn't indicate a change in strategy, according to Erik Leaver, policy outreach director for Foreign Policy in Focus, but it does indicate an avoidance of confrontation and a fear of public opinion - elements that bode well for a Congress-led change in course.

While the Bush-Maliki talks move shakily forward, progressive Democrats are taking advantage of the Declaration of Principles' tenuousness to introduce initiatives limiting executive power and curbing long-term plans for Iraq involvement. They hope that, while efforts to end the war will likely flop, Congress might succeed in preventing it from lasting forever.

Democratic Congress members are under pressure to produce some change in Iraq policies before the November elections, since public opposition to the war was a key factor in the 2006 elections' slew of Democratic victories.

Forty-six members of Congress recently sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey, demanding transparency on the issue of permanent bases.

"We would like to learn precisely what is being done to make certain that permanent military bases are not being planned or constructed in Iraq," said the letter, penned by Rep. Barbara Lee.

Lee recently introduced a bill to prevent Bush from signing any agreement emerging from the Declaration of Principles without consulting Congress. A parallel bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Hillary Clinton, would limit the scope of an ongoing US presence in Iraq.

Since November, attacks on the Bush-Maliki agreement's constitutionality have mounted. Bill Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight, has held a series of hearings on the legality of the Declaration of Principles. During the most recent Delahunt hearing, experts almost universally concluded that the agreement violates the Constitution, since Congress was not consulted in the process of its approval.

The State Department declined to testify at any of the three Delahunt hearings, though Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice agreed last week to appear at a future hearing.

The controversy over the limits of presidential power could generate a bipartisan effort to take back Congressional control, according to Leaver.

"Republicans have a vested interest in this issue, too," he said. "The next president might very well be a Democrat."

Leaver admits that such cooperation might be a stretch, but is not out of the question. After all, the first time a provision passed banning permanent bases in Iraq, it was under a Republican Congress.

Moreover, the project of reasserting the authority of the legislature goes beyond the US Congress, according to Raed Jarrar, Iraq consultant to the American Friends Service Committee. In mid-March, Jarrar said, five Iraqi Parliament members (MPs) will speak at a House briefing, arguing that their prime minister's actions mimic Bush's: Maliki bypassed the legislative branch when he signed the Declaration of Principles, even though Iraq's Constitution specifically requires Parliamentary approval for international agreements.

"We're hoping for a parallel declaration of principles between the two [Iraqi and American] legislative branches," Jarrar said. "We can't actually declare new principles, but politically it will be equivalent -- the legislative branches from both countries will come together against an unconstitutional situation."

Jarrar hopes the Iraqi MPs' visit will draw attention to the split in the Iraqi government, in which the elected majority -- the Parliament -- favors a US withdrawal, while the unelected minority -- the Maliki administration -- favors a continuing occupation.

"If the US is interested in democracy, how come it is ignoring the only elected body in the Iraqi government?" Jarrar said.

Perhaps other priorities -- such as military strategy and market control -- rank higher on Bush's list. Dossani points to permanent bases in Iraq as the administration's solution to the problem of US bases in Saudi Arabia, which al-Qaeda cited as a major motivation for the September 11 attacks. The US has already begun to pull out of Saudi Arabia. Robert Naiman, national coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, cites the possibility of confrontation with Iran as a primary motivation for establishing bases in Iraq.

Further, an extended presence in Iraq would mean molding the political landscape of the country to fit US interests, according to Naiman.

US involvement has shaped and reshaped Iraq over the past 18 years, beginning with the Gulf War and continuing through the UN/US economic sanctions of the Bush and Clinton administrations. Jarrar fears that if negotiations under the Declaration of Principles continue moving forward, the "end" of the Iraq war -- if it happens -- will simply mean the beginning of a new chapter in the continuing story of US occupation.

In part, that chapter is already well on its way. The US embassy in Baghdad, to be completed in the fall, is the largest and most expensive in the world. Most Iraq withdrawal legislation proposed thus far calls for US troops to remain to guard the embassy; an exception that would translate into at least 5,000 troops by some estimates. While the embassy cannot be categorized as a military base per se, Jarrar notes that it serves many of a base's functions - and perpetuates the underlying current of US dominance on Iraqi soil.

"Most of the 'no permanent bases' legislation is very vague and hard to put into real terms, so the embassy is viewed as political and excluded -- even though thousands of soldiers will be there protecting it," Jarrar said. "Even though the embassy will not be used 100 percent as a military base, it could still be a permanent political intervention base. The thousands of Americans at the embassy will not be there to facilitate diplomatic relations; they'll be there to run the country."

Iraqis are currently not allowed to enter the US embassy in Baghdad unless they're escorted by an American citizen, according to Jarrar. Even the five Iraqi MPs set to speak before Congress in March were recently barred from the embassy when they went to submit their visa applications, according to Dr. Nadeem Al-Jaberi, one of the MPs.

"They treat us in a disgusting way," Al-Jaberi said.

Steps like the upcoming Parliamentarian briefing may provide a short-term fix, Jarrar says, giving the public a glimpse of Iraq as a sovereign, self-determining nation and averting the immediate danger of committing to a permanent US presence in Iraq. Yet, those measures still "play within the rules of the game." To avoid the inevitable recurrence of dangers like this one will require a wholesale shift in mindset for the US, according to Leaver.

That shift would encompass more than Iraq policy, says Leaver. The US has more than 700 military bases, on every continent except Antarctica. In a way, establishing permanent bases in postwar Iraq would simply follow suit.

"This is not just a question of bases inside Iraq," Leaver said. "It's larger: Is our goal to be the military policeman for everyone? Can we continue this policy of having bases all over the world? What's the return on our investment?"

These questions will persist as the Delahunt hearings continue, the Lee bill goes into committee and the Bush administration's Declaration of Principles moves forward, even as the days of its hold on US foreign policy wane.

Democrats Stand Back as Congress Keeps Funding the Occupation of Iraq

In the next few days, a Congressional conference committee will likely pass the largest defense spending bill in the history of the United States. Despite Democratic lawmakers' promises to stop issuing blank checks for war, the bill does not call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq or Afghanistan, nor does it prevent military action against Iran.

Though the current version of the defense budget does not contain funding specifically for the war, money could easily be drawn from the budget and funneled into war costs unless the language of the bill is changed to specifically prohibit that usage, which it currently does not.

"A bridge fund is always possible," said OMB Watch policy analyst Adam Hughes, referring to a measure that would cordon off funds in the defense bill to be used only for war. "But even without it, they would have enough in the budget to sustain what's currently happening."

Moreover, even if no baseline budget money is used for war costs, Congress plans to continue financing the war at the current rate, House Defense Appropriations Chairman John Murtha told the Congressional Quarterly on Wednesday night.

Congress is currently operating on a "continuing resolution," or CR, which allows the war to be funded at the same levels it was funded last year. According to Murtha, Congress plans to renew the CR in mid-November, allowing war spending to continue unabated into the new year.

No proposals to impose restrictions on CR funds have been announced. Last month, a group of Congress members pledged to add provisions for withdrawing all troops from Iraq to any future war funding legislation, but that plan will not apply to the CR, according to a spokesman for Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the crafters of the plan. "We're really waiting for the debate on the supplemental to bring that up," the spokesman said in an interview, adding that Lee will probably not vote for the upcoming CR if it includes more funds for war.

Without a specific resolution barring all war funding, it would be virtually impossible for Congress to end the war by the power of the purse alone, according to Larry Korb, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense.

"You've already got the planes, the bombs, the people on the payroll," Korb said in an interview. "Congress can't stop the war unless they pass a bill saying that no more money can be spent in Iraq."

When Congress considers Bush's war supplemental spending bill next year, it will likely tack on several billion dollars, bringing the supplemental to more than $200 billion, according to Murtha.

At that point, the war discussion will come into full swing, according to a spokesman for Senate Defense Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye.

"When the supplemental comes up, there will be a full debate with a number of proposals," Inouye's spokesman said. "We will look at ways to have some sort of withdrawal schedule."

Included in that list of proposals will be Lee's plan to use all supplemental money to redeploy troops from Iraq.

However, the war will not wait for the passage of the supplemental spending bill. In these months before the supplemental comes to the floor, if the administration deems more war funding urgently necessary, it could invoke the Feed and Forage Act, an 1861 measure providing for defense-related emergencies, to draw funds from the treasury, according to Korb. The Act was cited to support the war in Vietnam and the Gulf War, and the Bush administration invoked it immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Citing the Act to finance attacks on Iran would not be unprecedented.

Some measures to immediately restrict war-related funding are on the table. In February, Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced a plan to use existing money to bring troops and equipment home within three months of enactment. Also, last week, Majority Whip Dick Durbin proposed a bill stating, "any military action taken against Iran must be explicitly approved by Congress before any such action be initiated."

"If this administration believes it has some authority from Congress for the invasion of Iran, I challenge them to show me what that authority is," Durbin said on the Senate floor. "Before they initiate any offensive action in Iran, they have to come to the Congress for the authority to do so."

Yet, it is unclear whether such proposals have a chance of getting heard before the defense appropriations bill passes. The bill is usually not a contentious matter, and Inouye's spokesman noted many in Congress are eager to keep it that way. "There was some effort to include Iraq-related amendments, but Congress didn't want the bill to be caught up with the Iraq debate," he said. "That would've delayed action on the general bill."

Zines Explore Transgender Culture Beyond Stereotypes

There's the Oscar-nominated hit, TransAmerica. There's the new book Self-Made Man, in which author Norah Vincent tries on maleness for a year and a half. And even the often-less-than-risk-taking The L Word featured a transgender character this season. Trans issues have hit the big time. However, despite mainstream media's slowly increasing interest in -- and occasional thoughtful exploration of -- trans issues, many big-time portrayals don't get past stereotypes and jokes. (Take, for example, TBS's reality TV show, He's a Lady, in which super-macho guys dress in heels for a day to get the true "female experience.")

Fortunately, another rapidly growing sector of the media is stepping up to broaden and complicate the picture: print zines. A huge range of publications are devoted to trans issues, each of which may include editorials, poetry, art, fiction, interviews, even musical compositions. Trans-focused zines have been steadily multiplying in recent years.

Why? As public interest in gender variance increases, it's important to show that it's about people -- not simply newsworthy phenomena -- said Red Durkin, who produces four zine series and tours with the Tranny Roadshow, a traveling group of performers, artists, and writers.

"Zines are an almost perfect outlet for us," Durkin said. "Being trans is personal. There's no instruction manuals. I think the failing of any broad sweeping analysis is that it could never encompass all of us. The only way for all of us to be heard is for each of us to have our own voice, and that's what the zine world offers." Many zines are produced and distributed by a single author or artist. Others are collaborative efforts, but most zines are never shipped off to an outside publisher or distributor, so zine writers need not worry about misrepresentation.

The complete freedom of self-identification that a zine offers is especially important for trans populations, noted Jamez Terry, a co-founder of the Tranny Roadshow.

"Zines are the ultimate DIY [Do-It-Yourself] media, which means you're totally free to define yourself and no one can challenge your right to identify however you want within your own zine," said Terry, who has produced more than 50 zines, including Transcendence, a zine by and for trans youth. "No one else is going to edit you and get your pronouns wrong."

And while we're on the topic, no one can assign your zine any pronouns either. Since zinesters don't gear their products toward a particular section on a Barnes & Noble shelf, they don't need to grant them identities that fit into culturally predetermined categories. Trans zines are instead characterized by fragmentation, mixture, parody, and ambiguity. According to Doug Blandy, a University of Oregon professor and zine scholar, zines are the perfect example of postmodernism, throwing all the identities and definitions we thought we knew into question, including our definitions of gender -- and of magazines.

DIY Democracy

Blandy doesn't see zines as merely a good example of postmodernism in the midst of a rigidly structured society. He sees them as a route to changing that society.

"I believe strongly that people, through their artistry, can participate in the public dialogue essential to democracy," Blandy said. Zines allow radical ideas -- many of which would never appear in a mainstream magazine -- to emerge onto the printed page. They then spark discussion between zinesters and their audience, both directly and indirectly, leading to more zines and more conversations -- a do-it-yourself chain of democratic participation.

This means that, unlike TV and mainstream print media, which produce a static stream of "information," zines foster a dynamic forum for discussion, in which readers are just as important as writers. The barista who plucks a stray zine off the café floor can write to the creator and debunk her column, or take up one of the zine's rallying cries and publicize it to a much wider audience than the zine might reach.

This also means that, in the zine world, the connection between personal and political is constantly blurred. Elke Zobl, creator of the Grrrl Zine Network, which publicizes and promotes connections between feminist, queer, and trans zinesters, says that simply putting one's uncensored voice into the world makes a political statement. For trans people, speaking and writing as themselves may be a radical act.

"It's a truly democratic form of media," Zobl said. "Anyone who reads a zine can create one. Insofar as [people's] thoughts and experiences are made public, zines are not only an important personal outlet and means of empowerment but also have a significant social and political function."

Take the experience of Jackie O., a performance artist, sex worker, and "SMBD aficionado" whose zine, Crazy Pink Revolver (CPR), was first churned out on a manual typewriter and photocopied "by any means necessary." (One issue was scanned and copied illegally at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.) The zine spans a broad range of topics -- some of Jackie's favorite pieces include "The Adventures of Tampon Boy," "The Few, the Proud, the Queer Tranny Vampires," and "Wigs 101." Jackie began by handing out CPR "brick by brick and queer by queer," then distributed some copies to independent bookstores across the country. Now in her 11th year of producing CPR, Jackie says she sees it as a mode of inserting herself into a society that has marginalized her.

"I always felt that I could carry my zines with me wherever I go as an extension of my selves." she said. "Oh, and I get around!"

Like Thomas Paine did back in the day, today's zinesters often distribute or sell their zines by hand, lending a face to their ideas -- direct representation in its purest form. Durkin, Terry, and other Tranny Roadshow participants tote their zines across the country, displaying them wherever they perform. Often, the zines become part of the performance through readings, onstage references, and even semi-subliminal messages (Terry sports a tattoo that reads, "Zinester").

Some zinesters have combined forces with another direct-democracy institution: libraries. Terry and the Tranny Roadshow's other co-founder, Kelly Shortandqueer, founded the Denver Zine Library, which boasts over 70 specifically trans-focused zines, not to mention all the queer-related zines which include trans perspectives.

Similarly, by collecting queer and trans zines, the Milwaukee-based Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) aims to help marginalized folks get noticed, so that their views become part of more widespread conversations. "This will then (hopefully) engender them (pun intended) to take action, and also to make zines so that others can do the same," said Milo Miller, co-founder of QZAP. "In some ways, it's viral action and self-publication."

At the same time, library projects remind us that zine-style democracy is just as much about reaction and self-reflection. The action of making zines only goes as far as people are willing to put in the time to read them, process them, and make their realities part of their lives. When you take a zine out of the Denver Zine Library, you may be carrying away one of just a few copies of the publication. Your time with that zine -- falling in love with its artwork, having imaginary conversations with its author, reenacting childhood memories, falling asleep -- counts as a democratic movement in its own right: reclaiming your turf as a responsive reader.

Building Community, One Scrap at a Time

Being a responsive reader doesn't mean simply nodding emphatically at a well-argued editorial. In the zine world, it often means making friends. Elke Zobl, founder of the Grrrl Zine Network, a resource site which provides an expansive listing of print zines, says that many trans zines have the same underlying message for their readers: "You are not alone!"

"For many, especially those living in small towns in the middle of nowhere, zines are a great way of connecting with like-minded folks around the world, without ever meeting them in person," Zobl said. "This is important for queer and transgender youth who often feel like outsiders and have a difficult time in school and at home."

Though Elke notes that lots zines may fall under our radar because they don't have a website, aren't explicitly called "zines," or are written in languages we don't speak (she mentioned zinesters in the United Arab Emirates, Peru, and Israel with whom she's corresponded), they're still circulating in local networks and bringing people together.

In certain situations, zines are practically the only way of overcoming isolating circumstances and uniting trans people. Just ask Amanda Armstrong, creator of Transsexuals in Prison. Armstrong thought up the idea while working with Books Through Bars, a Philadelphia organization that sends books to incarcerated people. She noticed that, although trans folks are overrepresented in the prison system, the organization wasn't getting any requests for books about trans issues. So the zine began as an attempt to promote the exchange of trans books, as well as the work of people on the inside. Armstrong forged connections with several organizations that work with incarcerated trans people and together they spread the word. Before long, Armstrong was receiving dozens of submissions. The zine came out in the summer of 2004, chockfull of poetry, art, critiques, info about the legal system and how to obtain medical treatment, and lists of resources.

"One of the most common things that incarcerated people who have read the zine say to me is that it helped them feel like they weren't alone," Armstrong said. "Many prisons in the United States don't allow inmates to send mail to other prisons, meaning that it's very hard for incarcerated trans people to be in touch with other people in their situation. Even if the zine wasn't a way for people to talk directly with each other, at least it allowed people to share a little bit about themselves with people in a similar situation, and to read about other people in their situation."

Transsexuals in Prison also includes advice for free-world activists looking to support incarcerated people. This brings up an important issue: "trans communities" and "zine communities" usually are not exclusive entities whose covers are shut to people that don't consider themselves transgender or zinesters.

In an effort to include folks besides seasoned trans zinesters, Red Durkin plans to develop a trans-educational zine. It's an attempt to begin filling the void left by mainstream media in terms of information about gender variance. This won't constitute a single-authority textbook, but rather a collection of different trans experiences.

"I'm not an expert on how to deal with trans people," Durkin said. "There's an assumption that you have all the answers because you are trans, and that's just not the case. I want to do something that really expresses the diversity amongst trans people, because the truth is, not all of us even read zines."

Why Paper's the Way

The need for zines in the trans community seems undeniable. But why is Jackie O. holed up in the Children's Hospital, frantically copying scraps she banged out on a manual typewriter? Why are Terry and Durkin cutting and pasting while traveling with the Roadshow, using pencils to scribble out poems? And how could the Denver Zine Library staff even think about collecting all those little booklets, giving up their free time to worry over checkout dates and bent covers? Why don't they all just get websites and change the date next to the "update" bar every couple of months?

For Amanda Armstrong, the answer was obvious. Incarcerated folks don't have web access, so the majority of her readership would be left without access to the information she hoped to provide. Other zinesters' decisions to stick to print are less clear. But Armstrong's situation points to a major reason to bypass the web: lots of people still don't have Internet access, and many young women and trans youth across the world fall into this category.

Another access block comes to mind as far as trans zines go: For many cool sites, unless you've got the URL on hand, you'll never discover them. Instead, you might find a myriad of cheap tranny porn. (Trust me: I spent a lot of time Googling while researching this article.) Strictly Internet-based zines exclude the majority of people -- the ones that don't have trans-zine-savvy friends. Print zines -- found in stores, at special events, on the street, etc. -- have the potential for a more diverse readership. They also avoid the stream of anonymous abuse that barrages some trans e-zine message boards, forums, and emails.

Yet for a lot of trans zinesters, more personal motivations were key to their choice of print. The hands-on element amplifies the zine's potential for unhindered individual expression -- the reason that many chose the zine form in the first place. With a print zine, not only can you ensure that your pronouns are right and your story isn't distorted, you can handsew the pages, color the binding yourself, glue on your own photos. One zine I came across even included a mini candy bar. A hard copy affords its maker total control.

"When you have a print zine, no matter what the subject, the whole point is that it's your copy," Durkin said. "You are responsible for taking care of it, you can lend it out to people, you can crumple it up and burn it if you want; it's yours."

What's more, you can touch it, as you can a person -- and personhood is what many of these zines are working to express, say Durkin and Jackie O., who both spoke of the particular importance of print media in trans communities. The zine becomes an affirmation of its creator's self-identified physical reality.

"[The zine] is like a living extension of a person," Durkin said. "You can have a connection with it." Connections between people are what forge radical democracies, build communities, bring solace and strength. Zines are about emotions as well as politics, reaching middle-of-Nebraska trans youth as well as offering an alternative perspective to He's a Lady. All the trans zines in the world may never reach the same number of people as a TV broadcast is capable of doing in one minute. But as they are passing from hand to hand and their words go zipping from mouth to mouth and brain to brain, they're not just reaching for people -- they're touching them.

The Night the Lights Went Out

In the middle of February, while most people are dialing their thermostats up to the max, microwaving multiple cups of hot chocolate and huddling around their television sets, a few dedicated Chicagoans will give up electricity in order to draw attention to the electricity shortage in Iraq. These folks really mean it: Their electricity fast, "Lights Out Chicago," starts Feb. 15 and will last to March 20. They seek to experience some of the hardships and confront the difficulties that Iraqis are experiencing since their power has been cut short.

"My hopes for this fast are simply that many conversations will be sparked, and that people will stop and think for a moment about how their actions affect such crucial elements of Iraqis' daily life," said Laura Gardiner, one of the fast's organizers. "When I tell friends, family and acquaintances that I will be participating in an electricity fast, they are often dumbfounded as to how that is possible. This is exactly the response that I hope to challenge; to show others that what we see as difficult or nearly impossible is the reality for many people."

The electricity fast forms a part of the Winter of Our Discontent, a 33-day food fast taking place in Washington, D.C., organized by the Chicago-based group Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV). The fasters will call for an end to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, reparations for the damage done by the war, and full funding for the reconstruction of Iraq, among other demands, according to Jeff Leys, one of the action's coordinators. In addition to fasting, VCNV activists will participate in civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance at the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and the World Bank, with quite a few risking arrest.

"Through creative actions, both the Winter of Our Discontent and Lights Out Chicago will press for the payment of war reparations by the U.S. to Iraq, for the damage inflicted by the past 15 years of economic and military warfare," said Joel Gulledge, an organizer with VCNV who will participate in both fasts.

As the Voices crowd abstains from food to call attention to the widespread hunger in Iraq, Gardiner and her co-organizers hope that Lights Out Chicago will provide the American public with a glimpse of the grim physical realities caused by Iraq's electricity shortage, which the Bush administration has no plans to alleviate.

Electricity shortages have increased dramatically since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which critically damaged at least four power plants. The closure of a major oil refinery this past December has caused conditions to deteriorate further. Before the war, Baghdad residents had access to electricity 24 hours a day, while most rural areas followed a consistent schedule of four hours with electricity, then four hours without, says Gardiner. Today, according to IRIN, a U.N. humanitarian news service, people in Baghdad have power for less than eight hours a day. Moreover, access is fickle; Iraqis don't know when electricity will come on or shut off. In 14-degree Fahrenheit weather, that unpredictability is no small matter.

U.S. officials originally decided to build Iraq's new electricity plan on a foundation of natural gas, installing gas generators in many Iraqi power plants. However, according to a December report in the Los Angeles Times, the pipelines to transport that gas power were never built.

The United States has made clear that filling the electricity gap is not a priority. Of the 425 projects originally planned to improve Iraq's power situation, only 300 will be completed, according to a report in late January by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

"Even though it may seem like there have been gains in Iraq's power supply, those gains are not reliable," Gardiner said. She noted that many hospitals cannot function for lack of the electricity needed to power essential equipment.

The month of Lights Out Chicago will include several workshops to encourage those not participating in the fast to try out the electricity-free lifestyle in smaller doses. Mehmet Ak, chef and proprietor of the Chicago raw-food restaurant, Cousins Incredible Vitality, will lead a workshop on cooking sans electricity. Gardiner, Gulledge and others will also host a series of community-building get-togethers featuring electricity-free activities for fasters and non-fasters alike.

"I hope that both those who choose to abstain from electricity and others who find out about our project can't help but empathize with the millions of ordinary people in Iraq who are unable to rely on electricity," Gulledge said. "I also hope that people living in Iraq will learn of what we are doing, and know that the problems they face aren't going completely unnoticed."


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.