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In New Prison Memoir, “Disabled Vegan” Rails Unabashedly Against Injustice

Jan Smitowicz

Before he was incarcerated, Jan Smitowicz believed he’d “end up in prison someday because of my radical earth and animal liberation politics,” he tells us in his memoir, Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison. “I just figured it’d be for a truly worthwhile crime. Like freeing caged mink at a fur farm … But here I am, stuck with this vile shitsack-stupid reality. I made my choices. Now I must deal with the fallout.” 

The choice that landed Smitowicz behind bars for two years involved trying to transport 53 pounds of marijuana from California to New York. It was a choice informed by “disability and financial desperation that made me feel I had little choice, and it was a great opportunity to escape being unhirable and broke,” he said during a recent conversation. Smitowicz didn’t reach his destination. Instead, he was routed into The System, where, at first, he feared being disconnected from his values. 

“They turn you into one conglomerate mass by stripping away your identity,” he said, they being the people who run The System.

He didn’t lose his identity, after all. Instead, Smitowicz drew inspiration from who he is.

“Prison is a … microcosm of the world at large, in a million different ways,” he said. 

In the minimum-security facility at which he did most of his time, Smitowicz said, most people, nonviolent drug offenders, primarily, “didn’t give a shit about social issues.” 

“I think long prison sentences lend themselves to, and sort of facilitate, the establishment of political awareness and a consciousness of social issues,” he said. “Short timers,” on the other hand, don’t have “years and years and years to sit around and think about things.” 

The reality is that each and every one of us, in what he calls the “free world” and behind bars, does. And Smitowicz has thought at great length about the suffering of our species and others.

Not surprisingly, he lost 20 pounds during his first month in prison — at county jail and at Stateville Correctional Center — surviving on “white bread, small amounts of fruits and vegetables, and sometimes a bit of beans or plain noodles.” When he arrived at Jacksonville Correctional Center, where he served the majority of his sentence, he had access to a commissary from which he purchased rice, beans, and noodles to cook in his cell. 

Surviving, wherever he was locked up, was the key. A longtime vegan and animal liberationist, and a champion of human and environmental rights, Smitowicz has a lot to say about our society. Inside, he “led by example,” whereas on the outside, he said, “I’m much more likely to go out of my way to bring it up and engage people in discussing animals, animal rights, and animals as property. 

“Being disabled,” he said, talking about his severely injured knees and the debilitating chronic pain he endures, along with depression and anxiety, which can be equally crippling, “I had to protect myself. I can’t advocate for animals or do anything for them if I’m dead. Anything that makes your time harder hardens you. And if I’d tried to openly advocate and confront people about carnism it would’ve just made my life a living hell. And I don’t know if I would’ve been able to survive it. So, at some point there is an element of survival where you have to say, OK, I’m vegan, everybody knows it, but that’s for the most part as far as it should go, here, now, in these circumstances, with being who I am, with my disability and everything, depression and all that.

“I talked to everyone who expressed any kind of remote interest in reasoning or asked me questions, or people who I knew would be receptive. I talked about it all the time with people like that,” he said. “I always talked to people if they asked me about it, I just didn’t bring it up and talk about it if they weren’t interested. I just led by example.”

Eventually, thanks to the “ace card” that is religion, Smitowicz received vegan meals from the prison’s kitchen. 

“I told the chaplain I’m Seventh-day Adventist, and so he let me get on the vegan tray list,” he explained. “Aside from that, my ethics were completely irrelevant to anybody in power,” just as they were to many of his fellow inmates. 

Smitowicz wrote about 25 percent of the first draft of Rebel Hell in prison — about 300 hand-written pages — before the experience became “too depressing to live and write about at the same time.” Still, during his time in prison, he was extraordinarily productive. “I wrote a 1,600-page hand-written animal-liberation epic,” he said. It’s a project that’s since been “reimagined as the first two volumes of a series of animal-liberation novels.” He’s calling the series The Liberators.

Producing that many pages “was amazing,” he said, “given the paltry amount of medication I was getting. I cannot imagine how much I could have written (with) even half the meds I’m on now.” By contrast, he was anything but productive toward the end of his sentence. “When they took me off all my meds, the last three or four months, I didn’t write a page,” aside from a one-page poem, he said.

Rebel Hell, in many ways, is the story of the power of The System, one that all-but ignored his disability.

“Are you alive? Are you about to die? If you’re not about to die, don’t fucking say a word. That was the general attitude” most staff members held, he said.

Still, “in there, it was an issue of survival. I had to write. I had to be productive. I had to find a way. The circumstances facilitated — birthed — a huge outpouring of writing, as did zero real responsibility and just all the time in the world to pass, and wanting so badly to escape, and that being one of the ways.”

While much of his time in prison was spent working on The Liberators, Smitowicz was (obviously) able to complete Rebel Hell upon his release. Much of the narrative is a well-reasoned condemnation of oppression of all forms. And that condemnation comes in various forms, including footnotes, statistics, graphics and other visual aids, and references to and quotes and data from numerous scholarly and scientific resources – all that delivered with equal measures of seriousness and snark.

To wit: “It’s almost as if … as unbelievable as it may [though it shouldn’t] seem, it’s almost as if the War on Drugs is used primarily as a weapon to target and incarcerate people of color!” — that from a chapter in Rebel Hell in which Smitowicz points out that “a black person in the state of Illinois is nearly TEN TIMES MORE LIKELY to be imprisoned than their white counterparts” and cites several sources in declaring that “America is a Prison Nation. Plain & simple.”

Inside, Smitowicz mostly stayed out of trouble — he certainly didn’t go looking for it — and concentrated on the things that would get him through: reading, writing, music, and the wildlife who call the “prison ecosystem” home. 

Smitowicz recently described the Prison Industrial Complex as “the bureaucrazy in its perfect form, at its apotheosis, at its most efficient and vicious, and somehow at the same time, utterly apathetic.”

His memoir is an intense read, full of dark truth and entertaining literary idiosyncrasies. It’s part witness account and part call to arms. It’s frightening and it’s hilarious, the work of someone who takes his values and his craft seriously. 

As I wrote in a review that I posted to Amazon and Goodreads, “Rebel Hell is maddening. It’s also full of snarky personality and unabashed spirit. It will piss you off anew and find you rooting for all those who challenge the injustices that are carried out against members of our species and others. And it will call you to join the fight.”

Learn more and purchase Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison.

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