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An elephant sits on a chair and looks out the window
Photo illustration by IlkerErgun on iStock

A perennial question put to prisoners goes something like this, “So, what do you do with all your time?” We hear it constantly in correspondence, phone conversations and in the visit rooms.

What I’ve found is that the most often invoked answer is something like, “I don’t know,” followed by some qualification and mumbled trailing off. The prisoner role is thus defined, however unsatisfactorily.

At Monroe Corrections Complex-Special Offenders Unit (MCC-SOU), a group of incarcerated individuals decided they wanted to broaden that definition a bit. To do so, they founded the prison publication Elephant in the Room.

The publication that became the Elephant in the Room was founded in 2018 under its original — though quite unimaginative — name Think Positive Behind Bars. About a dozen or so incarcerated people, along with the help of a single supportive staff sponsor, helped get the publication off the ground. It arose out of the ashes of two smaller-scale publication efforts championed by several founding members of this new, more expansive facility-wide group.

The main objective in forming the group was to design a means of communication among ourselves, corrections staff, their families and the wider community. The implied question was, “What do we do in prison?” and our response was to be contained in, and constituted by, our publication: The medium is also the message. We hoped it would be more interesting than mumbled uncertainty.

However, we wanted to ask — and attempt to answer — more pressing questions about the prison condition too.

The process of getting this project off the ground was quite involved. In the group’s first conversations about the direction we wanted to take, we found that the group all had our own personal motivations and agendas that were sometimes incompatible.

Many of us wanted to criticize the very system from which we were asking for permission to start a publication. While the administration created the conditions that impacted the “I don’t know” response in the first place, many of us also felt that a full-frontal assault on Washington state’s corrections department would likely accomplish very little and may instead evoke a regressive, repressive reaction.

The cooler heads among the group prevailed by taking a middle road: Why don’t we simply comment on the conditions and the outcomes? If we take a neutral tone and strive for journalistic dispassion, any sense that our commentary is critical will have to be imputed and owned by the reader.

Once this theoretical cornerstone was laid, we were able to move forward with much less debate. We had a near-universal agreement about making the publication as inclusive as possible and open to any type of author and submission they felt inspired to make. Our goal was to get people’s voices heard.

Once we outlined our positions on these principles in the form of submission guidelines, a mission statement, a goals document and a vision document, we requested a meeting with the facility’s administration through the group’s sponsor. We faced some pushback and were asked to add to and revise some of our policies. But in the end we were given a conditional green light with the stipulation that we remain as cordial as possible in our articles when writing about the facility staff and not attempt to print anything that wasn’t given a chance to be preemptively censored. Any violation of that request would result in termination of our ersatz press license.

Most everyone was satisfied with the agreement, although one member abandoned the group after a heated exchange with a member of the administration.

Within weeks we were off, printing a publication filled with stories about our lives, our struggles, facility news and happenings. We also expressed — though mostly less than candidly — our discontent with our sometimes fallow, aimless and — worst of all — often meaningless hours incarcerated.

Over the following two years we worked at regulating the production process, adding policies that we hoped would both stabilize the group moving forward and help court facility staff to get them involved. We hoped that through pervasive exposure and acceptance by staff and incarcerated individuals alike we would ensure the longevity of the project.

By 2021, we had two clerk posts paid by the Department of Corrections (DOC) in our public activities building, where the publication’s operations were housed. They were in charge of typing submissions, laying out the magazine and facilitating the rest of production. This sometimes required quite a bit of cajoling of the group’s staff sponsors to screen articles, approve final layout designs and images, and email versions of the publication around for screening and final printing. 

Toward the end of that year, the facility voted to rename the publication to “Elephant in the Room,” capturing the spirit of the publication in a metaphor that acknowledged the need to talk about prisons, what transpires within them, why we put our loved ones and community members there, and what else we might do.

Eventually, we had a volunteer staffer from the local community college, Edmonds College, a representative from the prison’s mental health services and a staff sponsor, who all worked to screen articles, acquire images, give advice and participate in the logistics of production, which generally involved quite a bit of communicating in which the incarcerated individuals could not participate. When we had an issue finalized and approved, a DOC employee would print off about 200 copies to be distributed to the units and mailed out to family members.

What do we do in prison? What does anyone do anywhere? We create things, we communicate, we try to find purpose and meaning. For those of us who produce it, the Elephant in the Room has added to all of those existential activities. And we have hoped that it would serve not just as an expression of meaning in our lives, but as a beacon for those of us caught adrift in the endless, meaning-sapping hours that seem to be the only surfeit of prison. Our hope is that it will be hard to not notice the Elephant in the Room.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chris Bistryski is one of the founders of Elephant in the Room, a publication at Monroe Corrections Complex-Special Offenders Unit in Washington. He is incarcerated in the state of Washington.