My Struggle to Work as a Journalist Inside Prison
It was common practice for the Email Police, as we called them, to reject my incoming and outgoing messages. I once had all of my emails rejected for 72 hours straight—emails that said things like, "I love you mom," and "I'm going outside for a walk."
AP Photo, The Courier & Press, Jason Clark
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It was Monday morning, April 23, 2012, and a friend named Cedric Dean and I had just entered our unit after eating the morning meal. We walked straight to the inmate computer system, hoping that SIS—the prison's special investigative supervisors—had released our emails early. We were both writers who had caught the attention of the media, and among the executive staff at our federal prison in North Carolina, we were public enemies number one and two.
About a month earlier, an SIS lieutenant had stopped Dean and me in the middle of the compound, saying he'd just come out of a meeting where we were the main topic. "Someone, somewhere will eventually do some creative writing and get rid of you both," he told us. "I predict you'll both be shipped out of here soon."
He was not wrong.
I logged onto my inmate account that Monday and in the top left-hand corner it read, "You have five new messages and a reject message."
Oh fuck, I thought.
It was common practice for the Email Police, as we called them, to reject my incoming and outgoing messages. They were especially hard on Dean and me. I once had all of my emails rejected for 72 hours straight—emails that said things like, "I love you mom," "My foot hurts, Carly," and "I'm going outside for a walk."
Typically, my emails would be rejected after I wrote a story or posted comments on social media that officials didn't like.
I went to the reject menu item and clicked. The email in question was actually my most recent article, a piece that I had attempted to send out the night before.
The article was about Sean Hannity and how the Fox News commentator kept airing incendiary soundbites of the New Black Panther Party. This was soon after the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, an incident that was causing some tension among a bunch of black and white guys who normally got along very well inside. According to the Email Police, the note was rejected because it posed a problem to the "good orderly running" of the facility.
"You need to get your ass down to the library and make a copy of this before it's deleted or something," I remember Dean saying. "How can an article about what's going on in here cause a safety problem? It can't. You need to fight this, Rob. Otherwise they just gonna keep on fucking us."
The truth of the matter is that I was well within my rights to write that article and have it published. A court ruling that very month stipulated that prisoners were permitted to write manuscripts, publish under bylines, and have uncensored contact with the media. Even before that, most prison officials would let your average inmate do this. For example, from 2008 to 2010, while I was housed in the same North Carolina federal prison facility—FCI Butner—the staff were some of my biggest fans. I can't count how many times they commented on one of my blog posts, or asked when my next prison story was going to be posted. When Ponzi scheme kingpin Bernie Madoff hit the compound, I started writing blog posts that clashed with what the New York Post was publishing about him. The guards loved it.
But all that changed the moment I was unexpectedly transferred to FCI Butner II, an adjacent facility.
Now I was a threat.
On the 7:30 AM move—when inmates are allowed out of their cells—Cedric and I headed straight to the library, one of two places that had printers. My intention at that point was to make a copy of the Hannity article, in the event I needed it as a part of a broader civil rights suit I hoped to file related to writing.
But no sooner did I take the copies out of the printer than a group of correctional officers headed for the library.
"Grab Rosso's legal folder and take it to the lieutenant's office," a CO said. "SIS said they want every single of piece of paper that he has on him, and everything in his cell. He's not to have any property in his possession whatsoever."
For the third time in 15 months, I was being taken to the SHU (special housing unit, a.k.a. solitary or "the hole"). The first time it happened was January 27, 2011, the day that officials learned that I had interviewed Madoff. In a piece published in New York magazine, Steve Fishman recounted what happened to me: "Then, suddenly, my communication with Rosso stopped. I soon learned that prison officials had thrown him in the hole—solitary confinement—for conducting the interview."
Eight months later I was back in the hole again, only this time SIS claimed they did it for my "own protection." According to an SIS tech—the officials who track inmate email—an article I wrote about the illegal tobacco trade inside could cause me bodily harm.
"I want the article down," the SIS officer said. He wanted it off every blog that it was posted on. No longer was the article a "safety concern," as they originally locked me up for, he admitted. Now I was just embarrassing the prison.
He also mentioned a woman named Michelle Heckner and how she had no business writing me.
Heckner was someone I had never met, an ex-con on probation who started writing me after she heard radio host Bob Garfield talk about me during On the Media, a segment on National Public Radio. She started reading some of my blog posts about criminal justice reform, and reached out. But because this official was holding and reading all my mail, he made it his mission to have her sent back to prison for writing me, which was technically a violation of her probation.
On the evening of November 1, 2011, I called Carly Hall—a woman on the outside who ran my blog—from a phone in the SHU and had her take down the article about the illegal tobacco trade. During that recorded phone call, I also made it clear that as soon as it came down, I would be released from the hole.
That didn't happen for two more months.
When I was released from the hole on January 2, 2012, the first thing I did was have Carly repost the tobacco piece on all of my blogs. Next, I began researching civil lawsuits based on "retaliation" and "First Amendment violations." In the short time that I'd been at FCI Butner II, I had been thrown the hole twice for writing, several of my media contacts had been blocked for various reasons, three journalists requesting to interview me had been denied, and my mail and emails were constantly being fucked with for no reason.
As we were being taken to the hole from the library, officers made it clear that Cedric Dean was sent to solitary because he was suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a female staffer and I was going because of "some article" that I wrote.
On or about May 25, I received official notice from the SIS tech as to why I was in the hole. It read as follows:
The email's subject line is titled 'Sean Hannity Radicalizes federal Inmates.' The email is sent to Carly Hall who has created the web page Convict International at your direction. It is one of several web sites created by you that allows you to air your personal reports concerning the on goings of FCI Butner II as well as multiple subjects. Specifically in this email, you interviewed black and white inmates concerning the radio talk show Host Hannity's latest segment of racial ideology. You attempted to send out the above mentioned email to numerous media outlets alerting them to the movement that is taking place within FCI Butner II.
From April 23 until the end of October, I remained in the hole. During that stretch, my mail was held for weeks at a time and I often wouldn't receive it at all. On one occasion, only one of three pages showed up. Perhaps the worst thing that prison officials attempted to do to me due to my writing was to have me transferred before my cancer was removed. (In September 2004, I was diagnosed with Transitional Carcinoma or Bladder cancer, a disease that recurs often. As a prisoner who is in need of chronic medical care, I am considered a "Care Level 3 inmate," meaning I must be housed in a Care Level 3 institution. They range from 1 to 4, 1 being the worst.)
In October 2012, I was told to collect my belongings because I was being transferred to FCI Forrest City, a Care Level 2 institution. When I explained to the SHU lieutenant that I was a Care 3 bladder cancer patient currently awaiting surgery, he said it didn't matter. I was taken to R&D—release and discharge—placed in chains, and headed for the airlift. On a stroke of luck, Warden Angela Dunbar happened to be walking out of her office as I was on my way out of the prison and asked the transport officers what they were doing with me. When she learned that I was being transferred, she flipped out.
"Get him back into the prison now!" she demanded.
Check out the moment President Obama meets with federal prison inmates as part of our upcoming HBO special on the criminal justice system.
Prior to leaving Butner, I was informed by a staff member that someone had changed my Care Level 3 to a Care 2 without proper authorization in an effort to expedite my transfer. I couldn't help think that this was in some way related to my writing.
On November 1, 2013, I was transferred from Butner II to FCI Terre Haute, the Indiana prison where I currently reside. Today, my life is very different—and the SIS doesn't bother me so much, though my email continues to be monitored. When I send a message to my fiancée, she's sometimes not sure if I am talking to her or the Email Police.
Robert J. Rosso is a federal prisoner serving life without the possibility of release. Born and raised in San Pedro, California, he has been in prison over 18 years straight and currently resides at the Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. Robert writes for VICE, The Fix and Gorilla Convict, and is working on a prison novel. Follow him on Twitter.