Journal of Urban Life, Hard Time
Jules Rutledge's FELON gives a voice to prisoners. It's about 'being real with society,' he says.
By LAUREN SANDLER
SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
June 9 2002
NEW YORK --
At the age of 18, most future magazine editors and publishers leave home for college. Not Jules Rutledge: He was off to spend a few years in another sort of institution: jail. His is not your run-of-the-mill media resume, but then FELON, his magazine, isn't your usual publication.
For three quarterly issues, FELON, an acronym for From Every Level of Neighborhoods, has glared from newsstands nationwide and flown out of the magazine's bare Harlem storefront office. The magazine is set to be published every other month, starting this summer. "The word, the name, is like a stop sign," says 29-year-old Rutledge, tapping on his desk, which is bare save for a deck of cards, a warden-size key ring and an incessantly buzzing cell phone. "And the magazine, it's all about being real with society. I keep correspondence with a lot of incarcerated people, people I met in jail. And they didn't have a voice on the outside, and there wasn't a magazine that was being real. Now there is," he says, leaning his big, black-T-shirted frame back in his office chair. A recent crop of independently owned and run magazines has emerged--Don Diva, FEDS (an acronym as well, for Finally Every Dimension of the Street), and now FELON, aimed at what's popularly referred to as the "urban" market. These publications feature profiles of established and emerging black celebrities, especially denizens of the world of hip-hop, often on a tight budget that comes from album and fashion advertising and newsstand sales (FELON costs $4.99). Rutledge, who after prison ran a delivery service, a cell phone and beeper store, and a security business out of his Frederick Douglass Boulevard storefront, was a founding partner in Don Diva magazine. He left, as he says, "due to creative differences"--his aversion to the magazine's inclusion of women's nudity and "glorification of violence"--and set up his own shop.
"There's definitely a void in publishing when it comes to black youth culture and the American poor, and these magazines are helping to fill that void," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: The Crisis in African American Culture" (Basic Civitas Books, 2002) and a former national affairs editor of the groundbreaking hip-hop magazine the Source.
Kitwana says that central to that general void is a discussion of prison culture. "Prison culture spills in to hip-hop culture. Inside and outside, the boundaries between prison and the larger culture have blurred, and yet there's no experience of that culture in American popular culture by and large, unless it treats it as entertainment."
Enter FELON. The magazine forms its identity not just from its eye-catching and brow-raising name, but from Rutledge's personal connection to incarceration. While he insists that the magazine isn't political, Rutledge's empathy is the magazine's imprint. (He estimates he writes 70% of the content.) An introduction to a Q&A with rapper Chi-Ali is an impassioned play-by-play of his sentencing to 40 years after being captured in the Bronx after more than a year on the lam. Most interviews in the magazine allude to or explore imprisonment. And Rutledge includes stories in detailed legalese about cases of former Black Panthers and other men in prison, urging hearings and follow-ups. "I have some good news from one of our comrades that had a capital murder in Alabama. He was found guilty the first time around and sentenced to death by the electric chair!" he writes. "And he's no longer on Death Row or faces life in prison, so one day he should be able to take his kids to the movie and the park!" Rutledge says he's in no way trying to gloss over the crimes that have landed men in jail, but rather that he's challenging a system he believes incarcerates the innocent along with the guilty, and hands down sentences to both that he deems overly aggressive and unjust.
He refuses to discuss his own crimes, saying only that he spent three years in jail as an adult and that his high school experience was interrupted by a year in a juvenile prison.
Terrance Rutledge, the magazine's managing editor, wanders into the office in a bright blue terry cloth ensemble and gleaming white sneakers, and sits beside his brother. He insists that the magazine isn't about the prison system or the culture it spawns, and carefully explains that not everyone in the magazine is a felon (despite his brother's theoretical musing, "it's one thing to live life and not get caught for it, and another thing to have a felony--you could say they all have felonies, I guess"). The magazine isn't about and for felons, he maintains; it's just an acronym. "But it is about not forgetting the comrades--the people who go to jail and are forgotten," he says. With a solemn nod, Jules adds, "When you're on the inside, there's no hope no more."
Not surprisingly, FELON can appear menacing on the newsstand. On the current cover, staring out from under the banner "Men of Respect," are the faces of rap impresarios like Fat Joe, the CEO of a record company called Terror Squad, and Irv Gotti, the CEO of Murder Inc., along with Jalil Mantaqim, an imprisoned leader of the Black Liberation Army. Displayed beside bubble-gum pink teen mags, and a parade of chipper celebrity smiles, FELON hardly looks like a publication with public service as its mission.
But that's just how Jules Rutledge describes his magazine--some cautionary tales from people who have been deep into a cycle of crime and violence, words to the wise from the genuine source, like Pee Wee Kirkland, a street basketball legend and criminal who tells his readers, "You end up going from being a thug to being a gangster, like I did. You spend the rest of your life either at home or in prison wondering where did it all begin. I'd rather put a bullet in my head than to glorify or relive the life I lived, or hurt again the people I hurt."
In fact, a teacher wrote to the magazine to say she'd like to use it as a teaching tool at her Brooklyn school (although she can't because there are "too many errors in the articles," she writes--there's even a typo in her published letter, and each issue is riddled with such flaws).
At FELON's heart is a desire to speak to people inside the prison system as well as those outside of it. For the next issue, Jules Rutledge will travel to prisons nationwide to visit 10 men who have been sentenced to 200 to 300 years apiece--with the intent to talk to them about his experiences on the outside, and to communicate their stories to his readers.
"Inside, they'll get to sit down with someone who publishes a magazine and talk. All they get from the outside is the TV, you know, the Soul Train awards. I need to show there's no difference between us two. They need something to give them hope. And respect." The insistence upon respect is clear: On each cover appears a cinema-style rating of "R" beside a warning: "Restricted: requires honor, loyalty, and respect." A tough demand from a title like FELON, but one it seems determined to earn.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
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