Author and activist Jan Smitowicz’s recently released book Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison tracks his two years in an Illinois state prison, and exposes some of the corruption and idiosyncrasy of the American justice system. Following his first self-published animal rights-focused work at ten years old, he went on to publication in Earth First! Journal, Green Theory and Praxis Journal, Louisiana English Journal, and The Animals’ Voice magazine. Aside from a vegan and prison survivor, Jan is a longtime social justice activist, former undercover animal cruelty investigator, Hurricane Katrina relief worker, and “proud father of a vasectomy.” He is also the father of two novels, Orange Rain and Redwood Falls, and has a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from UC Irvine, one of Gary’s alma maters.
We hooked up with Jan to discuss Rebel Hell and his work.
You’re known (to our readers, anyway) as an animal and earth rights activist, but you were popped on a drug-related offense during a transport you undertook for financial reasons. I think people will find it surprising that you weren’t arrested for, say, freeing 700 minks or tree spiking. Can you set that scene a little bit? I don’t want people to get the wrong impression, that your prison stint was connected to your animal or eco activism.
Well, the full story is more complex; it goes [far] beyond prosaic financial reasons and into the realm of actual survival. I’ve been disabled with a severe nerve pain condition since 2008, but got denied for Social Security Disability twice – despite the support of all my doctors. The goal of Social Security seems clear: not to help people who need help, but to find any way possible to deny that help. In other words, a typical “Bureaucrazy,” as I refer to them in the memoir; a social mechanism used to best control large numbers of people [made necessary by overpopulation!], one that I rage against thoroughly.
In the six months leading up to my fateful decision to accept that job hauling medical-grade marijuana cross-country – for which I’d be paid three times more money than I’d ever seen in my life – I struggled monetarily so much that I had difficulty even procuring groceries! Having done undercover animal cruelty investigations and other stuff, I’m supremely confident in my ability to act unfazed in high-pressure situations. Accepting the job was an easy choice.
I would like to point out, though, that I truly felt [and feel] my muling was a good deed: getting organic plant-medicine to people who otherwise might not be able to find it. Also, any time even one person substitutes animal-tested pharmaceuticals with organic cannabis, the animals benefit to some degree, right? And I surely helped hundreds of people do that, based on sheer volume and probability alone. Finally, the specific “crime” I was caught for may not’ve been directly related to animal liberation, but the memoir I painstakingly wrenched forth from the situation damn sure is!
Let’s talk a bit about prison life as a vegan. We’ve heard from Walter Bond and a few others who have done time, but we don’t get too deeply into the experience of surviving (I won’t say “living”) vegan inside. There are ample resources online on how to achieve a semblance of nourishment, but what social impacts did you experience?
My being vegan only furthered the already-wide social chasm between myself and most other prisoners [given how relatively educated and politically experienced and well-read I am, et cetera]. Differences that also include my white skin. Because – as I try desperately throughout the book to examine and conclude why/how American prisons maintain their stupendous racial disparities – black people comprise only about 15% of Illinois’s civilian population, yet they make up some 60 percent of the state’s prisons!
Anyway, in my experience, being vegan was actually one of my most insignificant difficulties. AFTER the initial month, at least; I spent the first two weeks in County Jail and then two more in a 24-hour-lockdown supermax-type prison, where we festered in unthinkable misery waiting to be transferred to a proper longterm facility. I shriveled down by 19 pounds during that 27-day period – meaning I sloughed off two pounds every three days. Once I survived that, though, it was a relative vegan-cakewalk. The worst part was probably how I had to claim a relevant religion and meet with the chaplain before I could start receiving the designated vegan tray. So absurd: you couldn’t get it for health or ethical reasons, but only if this or that antiquated fantasy-text supported it. Socially, guys seemed to view vegetarianism and veganism as the behavior of either a total kook or a religious zealot [if you can tell the difference], and therefore outside their realm of true understanding. I did have profound, even life-changing impacts on the few people I considered legit friends. One guy had his entire worldview blasted apart when I helped open his eyes to the ghastly, horrific world imposed upon animals by humans and our greed, gluttony, and sheer numeric excess.
At least once that stands out to me, you liken the prison transfer experience moving from cage to cage to factory farming, with the caveat that animals who go through this are entirely innocent. I’m sure there is more you can say on this, so, now’s your chance.
Every single day, 99.999 percent [if not more] of nonhuman animals live in conditions more appalling than anything that’s ever happened at Abu Ghraib, North Korean prison camps, and – yes – places like the Warsaw Ghetto and Treblinka. As the great and heroic Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote [paraphrasing for reasons of time and laziness]: To animals, all men are Nazis; for them, it is an eternal Treblinka. At the core though, American prisons and factory farms operate on the same basic principles – willfully, even desperately disregarding the individuals’ personhood and then “processing” as many of them as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible – no matter what abominable suffering it causes.
This also happens to be the entire industrial/bureaucratic model of civilization in a nutshell, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Every act of control and dominance is inseparably entangled. Which is why human liberation is animal liberation is earth liberation [or is it the other way around?].
You and I primarily connected through antinatalist circles because we are both passionate about the impact of overpopulation on animals and the earth. According to the very credible 2013 survey of vegans by M. Butterflies Katz only 13 percent of us are now raising, or have successfully raised, vegan children. At the other end of the spectrum, almost 39 percent of us are childfree and plan to stay that way, while about 33 percent said they are undecided about having children in the future. For those who are on the fence – that 33 percent – help me sway them against breeding more humans, and towards adoption if they feel moved to become a parent.
It should be the easiest thing in the world for vegans to understand: “Don’t Breed or Buy While Shelter Animals Die” is more than equally applicable for creating new humans. Maybe “Don’t Breed or Try While Adoptable Children Cry”? Still trying to perfect that one.
Anyway, we have an ethical duty to reduce our collective harm on animals; overpopulation [and consumption, as the two are inextricably linked] is their worst enemy. Every new first-world human birthed is another acre of wild land – animals’ homes – that gets bulldozed for housing, industry, and agriculture. Plus there is of course no guarantee kids will stay vegan. There’s a Facebook page called Vegan Army Fails documenting countless examples. Meanwhile, there are kids already here and yearning for a loving forever home; 415,000 foster children in America alone. Adoption seems like a sort of measuring stick for how much you truly love kids. You might even save a child from ghastly situations of physical/sexual abuse! Do the math. It’s not calculus, but basic arithmetic.
I might be one of those people you say should walk the plank but I’m not a fan of recreational marijuana. As for medical marijuana, I’d like to see a bigger emphasis on the “medical” part, but that speaks more to the current permissive system in many states for self-diagnosing and self-dosing, and speaks less to the medical value of the drug itself. And I beg for better standards to measure impairment. For example in Washington state, fatal car crashes caused by driving while high doubled after legalization. Can you give a quick primer on marijuana laws, and for skeptics like me, do you see ways this system can be improved?
There’s a very important problem here I want to address first: The information in that link is questionable at best. Marijuana can stay in your system for weeks, even months depending on usage. It’s not like alcohol, where you can perform a breathalyzer or other test and find how much alcohol is in a person’s system and thereby directly approximate the quantity consumed that day, the amount of impairment in that moment. Alcohol and marijuana are two wildly different drugs, and cannot be treated otherwise.
In any case, of course more fatal car crash drivers had weed in their system – it’s legal and easily available there now! But as I demonstrated above, having detectable marijuana in your system means little to nothing. I wonder how many of those people with detectable pot were also drunk? Because if they were, and I’d bet vital parts of my anatomy that a majority of them were indeed, alcohol impairs most people in ways incomparable to marijuana.
Okay. So pot is illegal, and remains stigmatized, due in large part to the perfervidly aggressive campaigns of 1920s and ’30s Americans driven to hysteria by the sensationalist “Yellow Journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper empire. His fortune, not at all coincidentally, was also built in part on the obliteration of ancient old-growth forests for the timber – Hearst saw hemp, and by extension marijuana [read: the two are variations of the same plant species, and back then “hemp” was the most common term for cannabis in political discourse], as a direct threat to his unimaginable fortune.
Enter Harry Anslinger, a racist scumbag moron of the “highest” order [NPI – No Pun Intended]. He was the first commissioner of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a spot he transitioned into straight from the Department of Prohibition when that ended. Strangely, he’s on record as saying marijuana is all but harmless – but then alcohol prohibition ceased and he needed a new target. He changed his tune rather dramatically, saying pot was “More hellish than heroin” and falsely linking it to 200 gruesome crimes. He also placed large emphasis on the perception that weed was popular with blacks and other minorities; in one article, he wrote, “Colored students at the Univ. of Minn. partying with (white) female students, smoking [marijuana] and getting their sympathy with stories of racial persecution. Result: pregnancy.”
Marijuana and other drugs are utilized by the mangled insatiable maw of the “Justice” System and Prison-Industrial Complex as a convenient mechanism – a weapon – with which to target and incarcerate people of color, mostly black men. I show this pretty damn conclusively in Rebel Hell, but for now I’ll just provide two facts:  blacks and whites use drugs at the same rate, but blacks are more likely several times over to be arrested and locked up on nonviolent drug charges;  blacks receive far harsher punishments on average for those same nonviolent drug crimes.
As far as the medical cannabis system goes, the DEA and lawmakers ultimately deserve 100 percent of the blame for whatever problems exist therein. If marijuana were legal and regulated like alcohol [or at the very least decriminalized], most of these problems would evaporate. To be honest – even though I’m disabled and drug abuse directly impacts my ability to smoothly receive proper health care – I have no real issue with people who don’t quite need pot medicinally, yet work the system to acquire cannabis cards. Why? Because medical marijuana functions in part as a sort of stopgap measure to counteract America’s bullshit drug policies and systemic racism; I celebrate its existence for those reasons alone. They would be justification enough for me.
But on top of all that, there are legit hordes of people with medical issues who eschew animal-tested pharmaceuticals in favor of those lovely flower buds. I assure you this is true. Like my wife’s father, who took anti-seizure pills for 30 years but still had regular grand mal episodes…until medical pot was legalized and he started growing/smoking it, after which he had zero seizures for the final 15 years of his life. The system has its flaws – just like every other system within our unsustainably populated human world – but it’s a damn sight better than the alternative of total prohibition. This society needs to get off its pseudo-puritanical trip and let adults enjoy their bodies however they want as long as it doesn’t harm others!
Given your past, do you ever butt heads with the straight-edge vegan community? Do you have a ‘read’ on the SxE contingent vis-à-vis health, activism, advocacy?
It’s happened. Not often though, I’d guess primarily because my wife and I are misanthropes of the highest order [pun definitely intended], mostly preferring the company of each other and our two perfect doggers to any human – though we do utterly adore our handful of close friends, most if not all of whom also partake in the devil’s lettuce. I have had many straight-edge friends. I’ve protested with many others. The only problem I have is that some of them can be absurdly dogmatic – looking down on you just for enjoying the occasional intoxicant. It’s silly.
There were a few very very hardcore straight-edge people I protested alongside quite often back when I first started about a decade ago; the topic came up and I expressed my personal hatred for alcohol. But I’ve always worn my bong on my sleeve, if you will [a conscious choice taken by myself and other vegan friends to play a part in normalizing others to marijuana usage]. Even though I totally agreed with them about alcohol, they somehow saw me as a hypocrite because I didn’t eschew pot as well.
It comes down to this: Just leave adults alone about their personal choices! We have bigger battles. Let’s fight those together first. The animals and their planet don’t have time for petty human drama – let’s achieve some serious shit for them, and then maybe our personal differences will matter a little. Maybe.
Speaking of subcultures, let me call out the phrase “disabled vegan” in the title of your book. Most readers know my husband has cerebral palsy and while we haven’t talked a lot about ableism in the AR movement per se, we have talked a lot about general body-shaming. It has even compelled Gary to wonder if, given his physical limitations, body-shamers consider him a liability to the cause because he lacks that “perfect, healthy vegan body.” As another disabled vegan, what is your perspective?
First I just need to say that I love this question, and so appreciate your asking it! My opinion is the animals need everything and everyone possible on their side. If anybody thinks their body is best for veganism, I have two suggestions for them:  Go liberate some animals if you’re so physically gifted instead of sitting around stroking your ego;  Get fucked. “It takes all kinds,” as a friend always says.
In fact, it’s pretty obvious to me that having every sort of body type involved in animal rights is an overwhelmingly positive thing. Don’t we want EVERYONE to be vegan? It’s like my dear personal friend Bob Linden of Go Vegan Radio says [paraphrasing with my more creative words]: Americans seem to gravitate toward obesity, so he wants to show that you can be vegan and still keep the fat on.
Personally, my disability has made me far more conscious of yet further atrocities perpetrated by the American Bureaucrazy – and hence even more critical of it. It’s no accident or marketing ploy that Rebel Hell’s subtitle contains the words Disabled and Vegan. I attempt to demonstrate how prison is actually a stunningly accurate microcosm of the “Free World.” The discrimination and neglect I experienced in regard to my medical condition inside the razor-wire fences was almost identical to what I’ve been through outside, except completely out in the open and unambiguous in prison. This memoir highlights the seminal importance of language and words – what we choose to say, when and how and where, the context – and part of all that is how precisely we choose to advocate for those who have little to no voice. People with severe disabilities – like me and several close Facebook friends and [I imagine] like Gary – struggle just to get by on a daily basis, far more than most people probably realize.
Social justice issues benefit greatly from having such people on board; we prove that you can face monumental personal challenges yet nonetheless thrive on a vegan diet [similar to gluten-free and soy-free vegans’ devotion]; even more significantly, we show how you can still advocate for others’ rights while simultaneously fighting for your own rights – and even survival! How is this anything other than a win-win?!
This isn’t necessarily connected to the book, but you’ve said your experience volunteering after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was seminal to your activism. Can you give us a glimpse into this?
It was politically the first real thing I did for the sole sake of doing something good and right. The situation there – its shocking poverty, the near-nonpresence of federal aid even six months after the storm, and how it all connected so clearly to the area’s black-majority population – unlocked and opened the door to my political radicalization. We Common Ground volunteers protested a property owner who was illegally and unethically evicting tenants who’d been displaced by the storm. My very first protest. Outside the bar owned by that slumlord where we protested, the National Guard stood nearby holding M16s. They weren’t protecting local residents from being illegally evicted, but they were protecting that rich guy’s property! Another microcosm of American society.
It may sound strange, but in Rebel Hell I explain how my volunteering trips to New Orleans after Katrina would’ve never happened if I hadn’t gone vegetarian earlier that year . Becoming vegetarian gave me the courage and self-confidence to do anything I set my mind to [which naturally included going vegan in early 2006], no matter how ostensibly daunting. Katrina fueled the decision to devote my life to activism.
We’ve got a link below to your website, but aside from that, how can readers best support your work? Also, if there are any deep green, deep antinatalist, or deep AR references you’d like people to know about, now’s the chance to spill.
I desperately need the support of my peers if I’m ever gonna be able to take my uncompromising messages to a larger, non-niche audience. Check out the different titles I have available on Amazon [if you simply search “smitowicz,” the only results are my material], post reviews on Amazon and/or Goodreads, subscribe to my author newsletter via my website, and [this one may be most important of all] spread the word! A groundswell of grassroots support could elevate Rebel Hell into the stratosphere – where I and many others believe it belongs.
In terms of other works, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters and Igniting a Revolution – which are, respectively, animal liberation- and earth liberation-related collections of essays by activists and/or academics, edited by Steven Best and Anthony Nocella – are without question two of the most critically important, necessary books out there. As activists, we need to be much more well versed regarding movement history. How can people who don’t know a lick about the history of animal rights form any sort of respectable, informed opinion on strategy? If you don’t know about people like Henry Spira, Rod Coronado, Marius Mason, Jeff “Free” Luers, and the SHAC7, you’re doing the animals a disservice; you’re hindering your ability to fully grasp the historical and potential efficacy of various tactics and strategies. Green is the New Red by Will Potter, Free the Animals by Ingrid Newkirk about the ALF, Endgame by Derrick Jensen, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization by Chellis Glendinning, and Flaming Arrows by Rod Coronado are also way up high in importance. I also have a few quick and little-known but very very critical movie recommendations, most if not all of which can be found on YouTube: Lethal Medicine [still the best documentary ever about animal testing], PickAxe from CrimethInc., Sharkwater, and Testify! Ecodefense and the Politics of Violence. Having said that, I respectfully but vehemently implore you to read more – I promise you can find the time if you try, and your life will be far better for it.
For more from Jan, and to follow his blog, visit http://jansmitowicz.com.