Writer’s block

The experience of spending years visiting incarcerated family members inspired British Digby to launch a magazine, Just Released, written specifically for current and former inmates. Photo by Jason Reblando.

The experience of spending years visiting incarcerated family members inspired British Digby to launch a magazine, Just Released, written specifically for current and former inmates. Photo by Jason Reblando.

For British Digby, June 1, 2003, holds great significance: A joyous day of her college graduation, capped by the presence of her mother and younger brother–”both out of prison, watching her walk across the stage to receive her diploma.

The day also served as the inspiration later for Digby to create Just Released, a magazine specifically written for inmates, ex-offenders and their families.

Digby is intimately familiar with the subject. She spent six years shuttling across the state to visit her family members at Decatur, Dwight, Lincoln, Menard, Pickneyville and Shawnee prisons. During her visits, Digby remembers being taken aback by how few opportunities the inmates had for self-improvement and how underutilized those limited resources were. That led to her realization that synthesizing necessary information for current and former inmates could help them break the cycle of crime and succeed on the outside.

The mission of Just Released is doing just that.

The magazine, in truth, was years in the making. Since 2006, Digby had been producing a quarterly newsletter for the prison ministry of Chicago’s Apostolic Faith Church. Borrowing the name from the coffee shop her mother opened to start fresh after her release, Digby took the newsletter and in March made it the full-color, glossy, 16-page magazine it is today.

It features service-oriented articles and advice, as well as content produced by inmates and ex-offenders–”all in an effort to empower her readers, Digby says.

“Visiting my mother, I started seeing inmates in the visiting room as people, not [defining them by] what they did, and it made me want to stick up for them,” she says. “Not to excuse what they did but to support them, so that, when they get out, they don’t have to do things that will send them back to prison.”

Digby sat down with The Chicago Reporter to talk about her work.

Why is a publication like this important?

We’ll always have crime. There will always be prisons–”unfortunately, they just keep popping up. Black, white, Hispanic–”we’re all impacted by this, and I think it’s an issue that’s not going away. We need to deal with it. [The magazine] is just one way to address the needs of this community and look at them in another light. I get letters in the mail saying, –˜Don’t stop this magazine. Thank you so much for being an outlet for us and allowing us to see people in a different light.’ If I could read you some of those letters–”that’s what makes it important.

Don’t other resources like this already exist? Why this format?

They just started a re-entry summit in prison to help [inmates] get acclimated to society, give them resources like transitional housing, give them foundations that will be helpful. But prisons only give those summits maybe twice a year. We get a lot of letters from people looking for housing or work, so we try to compile information and resources. We try to do a lot of service articles like, –˜How to rebuild your credit after your release,’ or –˜Seven ways to have a productive diet in prison.’ We also have empowering articles, success stories. We had a lady who was in prison for seven years, and she opened a book publishing company. It’s important for people in prison to see that she was once in the place where they are, and she’s become successful, so they can see themselves reaching that point. On the outside, we take magazines for granted, but in prison, reading is so important. They pass them around and they read them over and over again. We’re not the only people who publish this information, but for some people this is the only way they’re going to get that information.

How big do you expect your subscriber pool to become?

Because of cost restrictions and since we’re only able to publish four times a year, our readership is between 9,000 and 12,000, but that’s only because that’s all we’re able to produce. There are 45,000 inmates in Illinois. I’d like to see us be able to reach all of them. And I don’t just want this to be in Illinois; all offenders and ex-convicts need to have access to this information.

Can your audience afford to subscribe?

We let many of them subscribe on credit. [Many inmates] do work while in prison; some of these guys are able to make enough money to send some home. Inmates spend money however they want. Magazines are very popular in prison, and I see this as being something they’d want to pay for. The goal is for these to be free, but it’s very difficult and right now we’re using my own personal money. It takes a lot of money. But those letters that I get keep me going.

How do you expect to sustain a magazine in this economic slump?

Right now, we’re trying to get advertising. We’re getting ready to circulate our media kits, to explain that these are people who will be consumers once they’re released. They’re going to be buying Chevys, homes, deodorant. You want to engage these people while they’re in prison and tell them that you want them to buy your product, but you also want them to be productive members of the community when they get out. That’s something we’re really counting on to keep the magazine afloat–”once the advertising kicks in.

The reason that we’re moving forward with this is because if I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it. It’s radical, and I’m afraid to move forward with it because I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I have to do it, because I lay awake at night thinking about it.

We really want to make an impact, to cause a stir with this magazine, and let people know that people on the outside really do want them to make it and to be successful. So I have to make mental notes to myself like, –˜You’re not stupid to do this; this is serious.’

I’m afraid of failing but I’m afraid of not completing at the same time. I’m afraid of people thinking this is stupid, but I still have to move forward. I love the humble beginnings [section of the magazine] because I’m just in awe of where these people end up from where they started.

What are the unique challenges your readers face, and how does your magazine help overcome them?

It’s really, really tough for them. There’s that place on the job application, –˜Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ and that’s just the beginning. [When you get out of prison,] you have to get back into the community and find employment; you have to rebuild relationships with your children and restore your family. Some people may have lost driving privileges due to DUIs; some have substance abuse problems. We get a lot of people who have to learn life all over again. It’s really scary for them, so we need to let them know that it’ll be OK for them when they get on the outside.

A lot of people never come to terms with the crime that they’ve committed; some people do and then they become remorseful. We get a lot of letters from guys seeking legal advice. I have to always remind them of our mission as a magazine–”they ask us to be their voice, to get them out, but our mission is to help those who will be or were just released and empower those who don’t have an end in sight. We probably would get way more mail than we do if we were an innocence project, but that’s not what we do.

For people with long-term or indefinite sentences, we try to give them messages of empowerment: There are people out here who want to see you turn your life around and want to see you be successful. For people who won’t be coming home soon, we want them to turn their life around while in prison. We let them write poems and stories. They send them home to their family members and say, –˜This is what I’m doing now; I’m in a better place.’ The family members are really excited to see a publication taking them seriously enough. We cater to those who are coming home, those who will eventually be released and some who may never come home.

We also send out a lot of birthday cards and Christmas cards. In prison, it’s really, really very important to have mail, so we try to send out birthday cards to people on our mailing lists, and I get letters like, –˜I haven’t gotten a birthday card in five years.’ It’s so important when people are in prison for guards to call out mail, because it’s contact from the outsides–”they feel like people care about them.

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