For These Incarcerated Women, Print Sure As Hell Ain’t Dead
A zine from a group of inmates proves that prison reform can come from the inside.
Cover of Issue 31 by Jenni Gann
In the early 2000s, a group of women at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon were reading over prison zines created by men. They identified with some topics—racist treatment, guard brutality, human rights violations—but began to realize that the zines failed to address specific issues that women faced on the inside, things like sexual harassment and assault by prison employees, being pregnant in prison, and losing custody of their children on the outside. Thus, Tenacious: A Zine of Art & Writing by Women in Prison was born.
Artwork by Nicky Riley, a trans woman incarcerated in a men's prison in Texas
“Being inside prison, there’s no way to produce your own zines. There’s no access to, say, a copying machine, or the ability to write mail freely to [people] in other prisons to solicit work, or the ability to mail off lots of copies of zines,” says Tenacious editor Victoria Law, a freelance journalist and editor who writes about prison culture for publications like The Nation and Truthout. “So these women approached me and said, ‘We can’t do this because we’re in prison, so would you be willing to be that outside person who collects submissions, prints them up, puts them together, and then sends them back out into the world?’”
Law has been doing just that since the inaugural issue in 2002—and the zine just sent off the 32nd issue. While in the early days, Tenacious was almost entirely written by Oregon State inmates, the zine has expanded its scope significantly since. “This issue has pieces by women incarcerated in California, Oklahoma, Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois,” says Law. “One woman recounts her experience being pregnant in Mississippi and the challenges to having any sort of healthy pregnancy while incarcerated. [Problems] range from inadequate nutrition to not being able to see the doctor regularly—her last pre-natal visit before she was due to give birth was cancelled. When her water started leaking, the prison medical staff decided she wasn’t ready to go to the hospital, and they kept her a lot longer than they should have. These are the challenges people who are pregnant inside face.”
Other articles in the current issue cover “dispelling myths about murderers,” living with Celiac disease in prison, and even a piece written by a woman on death row.
Artwork by Tabitha Swords
The wider distribution of Tenacious has allowed it to become a useful forum for women in prison. Law recalls publishing an article by a woman from New Jersey about crackdowns on personal property and ramped-up searches in her prison around election time, all so that prison staff could boast high confiscation numbers to politicians. “And a woman in Colorado read that and wrote a piece in response to that saying, ‘It’s not just New Jersey,’” says Law. “So in a way Tenacious connects women with each other, even if they can’t meet face-to-face, to show each other that the experiences aren’t unique, that the problems are more systemic.”
Drawing of Dessie Woods by Rachel Galindo. Dessie Woods was a Black woman incarcerated during the 1970s for defending herself against sexual assault by a white man. Her case drew national and international attention, leading to greater support both during her trial and imprisonment.
Tenacious has been an important tool for inmates in more tangible ways, too. In one particular issue, a woman wrote about a pattern of assault at Oregon State. That issue then made it into the hands of an outside group who began a letter writing campaign, which eventually led to an investigation. But because of the sensitive nature of complaints and accusations against prison administration, Law admits that Tenacious has also had a run-in or two with officials—one article claimed that a prison officer had been continuously assaulting a prisoner, which led to the banning of that specific issue by that prison. In fact, the recent cover of issue 31 contained imagery that might have gotten some prisoners in trouble. “The image that might cause a problem for people in California is of a dragon,” says Law. “California has a whole bunch of images that they consider gang-related. Until recently, having anything with an image of a dragon could be used as proof that you are part of a prison gang and could land you in indefinite solitary confinement. That was something that I thankfully thought of before sending out copies of the publication.”
Tenacious is free to women in prison and jails, while incarcerated men seeking the zine are asked to send two stamps to cover postage costs, and $3 is requested of those on the outside.