TUCSON — Publishing a classy, well-written magazine is difficult under the best of circumstances. Doing it at a prison with inmate staffers would seem downright impossible.
But that's just what is happening at the Arizona State Prison at Florence, where every two months inmates write, edit, paste up and print La Roca, a consistent award-winner in the National Penal Press Contest sponsored by Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
In competition with other prison magazines, with titles such as Chainlink Chronicle and Stray Shots, La Roca has won awards in that contest every year since 1981. Last year, it won honorable mention for best magazine. And an anthology publication called the Penal Press Digest named it the best in the country.
William Hester, 56, who was editor of the magazine for the last two years, says its principal purpose is to "chronicle prison culture" through news reports, poetry, letters, fiction and commentary. At times, that means being a thorn in the side of complaining prisoners.
"Every publication takes on the character of its editor, and I'm afraid I'm intolerant of laziness," says Hester, the author of six published novels who is in prison for theft and forgery. "That's La Roca's posture, to educate, to tell inmates to quit complaining and do something about their situation."
But with writing that is sharp, clear and stylish, La Roca, which runs about 50 pages and has a circulation of 6,000, also is not afraid to take pokes at the prison system and its leaders.
In a short story titled "Willy the Rat," an inmate-author describes a fictional prison guard--a 320-pound woman named Esther--as a "fat bag of trash." The story ends with an inmate befriending a rat living in his cell, and using it to drive Esther insane.
Somehow, prison officials and La Roca's editors manage to co-exist. Although every word in the magazine is read by a prison official before going to press, it is rarely censored.
"The magnitude of freedom to criticize is amazing, given where the magazine operates," says Dave Mann, who wrote a controversial legal column called The Advocate.
Mann, a former teacher who served seven years for theft before being released in April, says he often expected trouble from administrators because of his writing. In one column, he said that a policy effectively taking personal property away from prisoners was illegal.
"I got word through the grapevine that people weren't happy about that one," says Mann, now attending a prestigious Eastern law school. "But nobody ever said a word."
Marge Thompson, the prison's education manager who reviews La Roca before publication, says that the only controversy she can recall occurred over a cartoon of one man holding up the severed head of another. Complaints were voiced, including some by deputy wardens, but that was the end of it.
"It wasn't in the best taste, but it wasn't a big deal either," says Thompson.
Hester, now called editor-at-large as his potential release date nears, often puts in 60 hours a week in La Roca's "newsroom"--a 60-foot trailer in the minimum security yard.
Ray Gutt, who is replacing Hester as editor, says the long hours under deadline pressure have helped his rehabilitation. "I've always had a high anxiety-panic reaction and this has helped me put a lid on those feelings," says Gutt, a former restaurant manager serving time for kidnaping and aggravated assault.
Hester's struggle has been to maintain the magazine's standards. "Some guy over in cellblock 4 might think if he sends something to La Roca, we'll just publish it," Hester says. "But that's not true. We reject 30 pieces a month. We don't talk down. We try to maintain a literate style and it works."