You can usually find Anthony Rayson, 64, in the bright wood sunroom at the rear of his home in south suburban Monee. Through the window, there’s a sandbox and kids toys for Rayson’s grandson, when he visits. At a small table, he lays out apple slices for guests.
The room is stuffed with bookshelves, and the bookshelves are stuffed with folded sheets of white A4 paper making up thousands of homemade zines. Rayson pulls a few titles: Abolish All Prisons, Free the Slaves!, and finally, The Most Virtuous Vagina in the United States of America, grinning.
Zines, or self-made, low-budget literature — often booklets — were once a staple of underground publishing. But in the internet age, as self-publishing become quicker, cheaper, and boundless, they’ve fallen out of favor. These days, zines are mostly relegated to art circles.
Rayson, though, has found a practical use for the medium: For the past 20 years, he’s run the South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, a service that mails copies of zines from his extensive collection to incarcerated people. He also catalogs and sends out zines made from inside prisons, creating a network between prisoners across the country.
Rayson’s work, including multiple collaborations with incarcerated writers, is the inspiration for a current exhibition, Incarceration: Art, Activism, and Advocacy, on display at DePaul’s Richardson library through the first week of January.
Rayson wrote his first zine, The People’s Polar Express, in the 1970s. He’d just dropped out of his freshman year at Grinnell College in protest of US military action in Cambodia — or rather, in protest of a protest. “Grinnell students only struck for one day,” says Rayson. “So I said, ‘No, I’m staying on strike.’”
He hitchhiked around the country for two years, then returned to his parents’ home in Tinley Park, where he logged more than a hundred pages of creative writing. (He’s since gone back to school, graduating as valedictorian from Prairie State College in 1995).
It wasn’t until the 1990s that Rayson built the zine library he’d later use as a distribution center. At the time, he was a member of an anti-racist activist group. At one of their regional meetups, he had the idea to organize each chapter’s various literature into an anthology. “I realized, if it was going to happen, I was going to have to be the one to do it,” Rayson says.
All you need to distribute zines is a library of originals. From there, you can scan, fold, and staple copies in minutes. It didn’t take Rayson long to amass a huge collection, and soon, he wanted to share it. He posted ads in other zines and wrote letters to the editor of lefty publications like The Progressive and Mother Jones. But they went largely unanswered.
“It seemed so hopeful in the early ’70s,” says Rayson. “Everyone was pissed off, you know? ‘We’re gonna stop this shit!’ “But then everyone decided, ‘Oh, I’m just going to go disco.’”
But Rayson persisted, and soon, he found an unlikely readership — in state prisons.
Rayson had begun writing to people in correctional facilities at the behest of Sean Lambert, a zine author and prison rights activist who’d mentored Rayson through the ‘90s. At first, Rayson was looking for correspondents who could give him firsthand stories from prison to use in his own work.
But soon, he found that prisoners across the country wanted the zines he had, which were often political or instructional in nature (say, a primer on the Black Panther Party or a guide to staying healthy while incarcerated). In the letters he got back from prison, he found the same fire and urgency that he missed in his own ex-hippie peers. By the end of the 1990s, Rayson had collaborated on his first zine with a prisoner, Frank Atwood, called Decidedly Radical.
20 years later, Rayson gets roughly 80 to 100 new zine requests from prisons each week. Some people want a single title, others as many as Rayson can send. He and a single volunteer aim to fill each request within three weeks.
It’s a full time job for Rayson, a retired toll booth attendant and activist. (In 1998, he founded Shut This Airport Nightmare Down, a group that has protested the proposed suburban airport in Peotone.)
Before Rayson retired, he spent a good chunk of his shifts at the tollbooth writing letters to prisoners and making zines.
“I had to be at work for eight hours, might as well see if I could do this for four of them,” Rayson says. “It’s kind of a brainless job. You use 2 percent of your brain and you’ve still got 98 percent left.”
Today, Rayson bankrolls his entire zine distro, which costs $10,000 annually to run, with his pension. Save for the stray donation or a packet of stamps from a prisoner, he receives nothing.
The trick? “I don’t have cable. 40 years of cable, that’s $50,000 I never spent. I don’t go to the movies,” Rayson says. “You’re going to spend your money on something—why not put it to use?”
Judging by the letters Rayson gets back from prison, he’s indeed putting it to use. “Brother Rayson,” begins one, which goes on to pledge sending Rayson $15,000 as soon as the writer is able. “Forward Ever / Backwards Never!” ends another, from an inmate on San Quentin’s death row, asking Rayson for zines on education reform and anti-racism.
Rayson estimates that most of his zines get passed around to 20 people besides the requestor. Some prisoners, he hears, will read his zines aloud through the air vents. Others make clotheslines out of towels to pass them between cells.
Still, it’s not always an easy job. Rayson says he’s gotten threatening letters targeting his anti-racist activism, and that prison authorities have threatened lawsuits for inciting riots and strikes. It isn’t unusual for Rayson’s zines to be sent back undelivered.
But Rayson has his ways.
“I’ll put a benign cover and first few pages on some stuff that I think they may ban, because the guards are pretty lazy and just thumb through it,” he says. “Or I’ll send a really harmless zine, and if you don’t get it, threaten legal action.” (Prisons are allowed to censor reading materials, but only up to a point — say, those that are gang-affiliated or encourage violence.)
Though Rayson is a self-proclaimed anarchist, his actions show a belief in eliciting change from within the system, straying from its bounds only when he has to. The ABC in his distro’s name stands for Anarchist Black Cross, a service group branch of anarchists.
“I didn’t realize I was an anarchist until I was forty,” Rayson says. “I finally ran across some serious analysis that I could relate to. Now I want to use the lucidity of anarchism to help transform people’s lives.” (Rayson gained his radical bent at an early age. His father was the progressive (if idealistic) state Representative Leland Rayson. When he died in 2001, the Tribune called him “ a thorn in the sides of state Republicans and, as often as not, the Chicago Democratic machine.”.)
By the late aughts, Rayson decided he’d captured something special in his collection. As his outreach to prisons grew, so did his correspondences with inmates, many of which turned into new publications. “You know,” he’d write to prisoners, “You make a hell of a lot of good points. Maybe we should write a zine about your situation.” After a round of edits and some cutout graphics, those stories became a permanent part of Rayson’s collection.
So in 2008, he approached DePaul University with an offer to donate his entire library to their archives. Since acquiring the materials, the school has become a parallel distributor of Rayson’s zines, sending off copied materials to prisons free of charge.
Though DePaul is more limited in its anti-institutionalism, the partnership has its perks. The official university letterhead, for instance, lends credence to the operation.
“I’ve often wondered if more things of ours get in than Anthony’s,” says Derek Potts, the librarian who manages the collection.
What’s more, keeping the zines at DePaul opens them up to students and the public. Potts encourages professors to bring in student groups to work with the collection; the impetus for the exhibition, which features work from Rayson’s library and prison and protest materials from DePaul’s archive, was to raise awareness of the resource.
It’s a big project, but Rayson protests the classification of what he does as charity. “Prisons are really where there are the most brilliant people to collaborate with,” he says.
Mark Neiweem, a collaborator of Rayson’s who modeled his own zine distro after the South Chicago operation, offers a different explanation for why the collection has caught on.
“Prison’s a really loveless place. Everything is hard. Love needs to be imported, and that’s what Anthony does.”