CanCell That Subscription

Say one thing for Texas Monthly publisher Michael Levy: He is discriminating about his readership.

Levy banned state inmates from subscribing to the magazine after advertisers complained that too many convicts were mailing in postage-paid cards for free brochures about dude ranches, fine furniture stores, elite health care and other trappings of the Texas good life.

Levy says he made the decision more than a year ago, but the controversy has made waves in recent days after a pair of inmate advocates learned of it.

"Freedom of the press is for people who have the presses, not readers," says an irate Ray Hill, an ex-convict and the founder of The Prison Show on Houston radio.

Huntsville lockups were clearly not the gold mine businesses were targeting when they paid for ads in Texas Monthly. Levy sympathized with their gripes. He faults the prisoners for succumbing to the lure of the solicitations tucked in the glossy pages of his Lone Star myth-making magazine.

"[Inmates] were harassing advertisers," he says. Levy links access to his magazine to a person's status as a voter.

"If you lose the right to vote, you lose your subscription to Texas Monthly," he says.

Chuck Hurt, Hill's radio co-host, says he recently received a letter from an inmate at the high-security Estelle Unit, who said he had tried to subscribe to Texas Monthly. He was told by prison personnel that he was not allowed to sign up.

Hurt originally surmised that prison officials had stopped delivering the magazine because of critical coverage. But the Department of Criminal Justice fingered Texas Monthly as the author of the ban.

"This is a Texas Monthly issue. This is not a Department of Criminal Justice issue," says Linda Patteson, the assistant director of TDCJ's program and services division. Patteson said the blackout to prisoners began sometime around January 1999. The only warning that it was coming was a request by Texas Monthly to prison officials for information about inmate subscribers.

Hurt says that in a conversation with Levy, the publisher referred to prisoners as "scumbags" and accused them of calling advertisers directly. Hurt finds that account questionable since only a handful of units allow prisoners to make phone calls. He says that even in those cases, the calls must be collect.

Levy told the Houston Press that the "harassment" of advertisers occurred by mail and telephone, but he declined to elaborate.

For Hill, it is no surprise that a prisoner would yield to the temptation of a free, splashy brochure that promises adventure and luxury. "You could build a whole identity worth of dreams out of things you wish you could buy, but can't," he says.

He says Texas Monthly could just as easily have helped advertisers recognize prisoners' addresses, rather than imposing a blanket ban. He finds it ironic that a publication that specializes in manufacturing a promise of the "Texas dream" would deny access to that dream for some 160,000 inmates.

Levy says he expects some grousing from activists, inmates and their families, but isn't fazed.

"People bitch," he says. "That's too bad."


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