SAN FRANCISCO — Most every month, Lawrence Halbert shines a tell-all light from inside one of California's most closeted societies: the sexually violent predator ward at Atascadero State Hospital where he is confined.
With pen, paper and an electric typewriter, the 43-year-old Bay Area native and a handful of other convicted rapists and child molesters publish Echoes of the Gulag, a 600-circulation monthly that challenges the enigmatic doctors and psychologists who dominate nearly every aspect of their day-to-day lives.
What began in 2000 as a simple legal advice sheet circulated among patients has evolved into an aggressive, unauthorized journal that is now forbidden reading among hospital staffers. One employee union has contacted a lawyer to get the Gulag shut down, and prisoners say the hospital has even confiscated copies of a recent issue.
Where inmate writers see themselves as muckrakers whose work provides therapy for fellow patients, administrators dismiss them as dangerous malcontents whose aim is to intimidate hospital staff.
"We're shining a light they don't want to see, especially from people they've written off as insane," Halbert said in a telephone interview.
Under such headlines as "Spin Doctor!" and "Whom Can You Trust?" the underground journal reports on allegations of attacks by staff, forced medication and substandard conditions inflicted on patients at the high-security ward 200 miles south of here.
Stories question the credentials of staff physicians and report on what inmates call an unjust state law--which was argued last week before the California Supreme Court--that forces patients termed sexually violent predators, or SVPs, to remain inside a mental ward even after they've completed prison sentences for their crimes.
Run by an editorial board consisting of Halbert, a former cabinetmaker, along with an SVP who is a geologist and another who is a former weekly newspaper owner, the Gulag is compiled on the ward from inmate submissions that arrive on napkins and shreds of cardboard.
From there, the written stories are smuggled out of Atascadero for production and then spirited back inside the hospital as a four-page, black-and-white newsletter.
"This newsletter is part of these patients' pathology," said hospital spokeswoman Barrie Hafler. "It's a product of only a handful of people. But it occupies time that could be better spent on treatment."
Some psychologists, defense lawyers and historians disagree, applauding the publication as a feisty news outlet that dares to operate in a hyper-controlled environment.
"This is the most important kind of speech the Constitution can protect," said lawyer Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's the very definition of political free speech by inmates who believe they are being held illegally. It's an emotional outlet."
Others argue that even convicted sex offenders need a voice. "The Gulag offers these inmates hope--as reporters they're no longer stumbling around in the dark," said Mike Aye, an attorney who posts the Gulag on his Web site.
"They may have done some lousy things in life. Some may need to be locked up, some not. But they're still human beings and they need to be treated as such."
John Podboy agrees. The psychologist once served on a state board overseeing sexually violent predators before quitting in protest in 1996. Now he's a Gulag reader.
"They're scrappy in their reporting--they have friends outside the hospital check on the credentials of the staff, who in some cases have been less than forthcoming," Podboy said. "They closely watch legislation and provide a real service to patients."
Halbert likens himself to Randle P. McMurphy, the nonconformist in Ken Kesey's 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" who led a motley crew of mental patients to question authority at their asylum.
But unlike Kesey's fictional hero, these sociopaths deserve to be locked up right where they are, hospital officials say. To be declared a sexually violent predator, an inmate must have committed rape at least twice.
Until recently, the newsletter was funded by a public defender's association, and a Sacramento defense lawyer has posted some issues on the Internet at www.oldsaclaw.com. Hospital workers counter with Gulag complaints at www.psych-health.com/gulag01.htm.
Like Halbert, all 400 patients at the ward are held under a controversial state law that allows authorities to keep sexual sociopaths locked up beyond completion of their penitentiary sentences unless doctors agree that they are not a threat to society.
Halbert calls the Gulag a shot of self-esteem adrenaline.
"Most staffers avoided eye contact with us and saw us as what one termed 'sociopathic subhumans of the first stripe,'" he said. "But now they see we're not just drooling lunatics."