Around the time that Melanie Holmes read and reviewed Liberating Minds: The Case for College in Prison here the prison topic came my way again. Author Jan Smitowicz contacted me about his new memoir, Rebel Hell. Jan has quite a story to tell, and it is about anything but getting a college degree while in prison.
In 2010, Jan was arrested after an illegal search and seizure and ended up spending two years in Illinois state prisons. An author of two novels, his prison experience inspired this narrative nonfiction work. Rebel Hell is an unadulterated story about his descent into the “Prison Vortex.” I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with Jan for a Q&A about his book and experience:
Tell us the short story of how you (unjustly) landed in prison.
Two main things got me sent to prison: financial desperation and the broken, unbelievably crooked American “justice” system. I have a chronic nerve pain condition, which was caused by five knee surgeries and innumerable accumulative injuries. It became impossible for me to work in any hirable way. I had to quit my job driving a delivery van, and despite full support from multiple doctors, was twice denied Social Security Disability.
Then a job came my way – one I could actually perform. A former acquaintance offered me three times as much money as I’ve ever seen in my life for merely driving from the Bay Area to Manhattan…with 53 pounds of marijuana in tow. I saw it as a great opportunity to become self-sufficient and save up for my and my fiancée’s future.
Shortly after passing into Illinois on I-80 east in my rented RV I got pulled over for a traffic violation I did not commit. When the state trooper claimed suspicion and demanded to search my vehicle, I inquired as to his legal justification for invading my Fourth Amendment right to privacy. He stated—while being recorded by his vehicle’s dashboard camera—that this stretch of I-80 was a heavily drug-trafficked corridor. I rejected consent to search, and was detained. This basis for detaining me was far from being legally defensible. In the words of my lawyer Bruce, “If that were a valid basis for detaining a traffic stop subject, then the cops could stop and search everyone.”
From there, the legal proceedings were fraught with injustice, from the state trooper lying on the witness stand to the plea deal I was offered, which I will get to next.
What about your prison experience do you think most people do not know about?
A biggie: how plea deals can be handled. In my case, the judge and prosecutor offered to reduce my plea deal from seven to four years…if I coughed up $25,000! It felt like nothing less than a straight-up bribe. In Rebel Hell you get the dirty details on the justice system’s shameless charade of democracy called my case.
Another shocking aspect of my prison experience involves the audacious nonchalance with which guards and administrators routinely disregarded even the most basic of prisoners’ legal rights. One simple, but significant example: they’re supposed to provide inmates with at least 30-60 minutes of outdoor time each day, yet during the entire first month of my incarceration, they allowed us to access fresh air and sunshine for precisely 20 minutes on one single occasion! For two years, I witnessed many forms of wanton neglect across County Jail and multiple state prison facilities.
Rebel Hell raises crucial questions about our country’s prison and justice systems. From your experience, how do you think its deep-seated problems can be solved?
Demolishing the black male-targeting drug war may be the most important first step. The entire prison industrial complex and American “justice” system both need to be rethought from the dirt up, as they are both broken beyond repair. My entire prison experience demonstrates this unquestionably. I think casting our gaze over to [most] European countries and their emphasis on humane treatment and rehabilitation over punitive approaches would also be a good early tactic.
Thank you, Jan!
Read his story, and you’ll get a raw, real and deep look into the prison industry with unabashed humor and commentary peppered throughout.
Jan Smitowicz resides in California’s wondrous North Coast region with his wife/publicist Andria and their rescued companion animals. They are happily childfree vegans. Smitowicz has also published the novels Orange Rain and Redwood Falls. He believes fiction and narrative nonfiction still have the power to change lives—and thereby better the world. His website is www.JanSmitowicz.com.