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Author-activist Jan Smitowicz was arrested in 2010 after an illegal search and seizure, eventually spending two years in Illinois state prisons for marijuana. Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison is an enthralling, poignant, wildly creative, and startling narrative about his descent into the kaleidoscopic "Prison Vortex." In the foreword by Todd Shackelford, Ph.D., Psychology Department Chair at Michigan's Oakland University, he writes that Smitowicz's new book is "Beautifully crafted, outrageously candid, deeply empathic, and often uproariously funny . . . a remarkable story."

Written with unequaled stylistic flair, Smitowicz's Rebel Hell is a trailblazing addition to the great pantheon of socially relevant prison stories. The narrative is brimming with absurd barbarism and corruption. Like the underfed author's weight-plummet of 19 pounds in just 27 days. Like the rampant mistreatment of inmates' serious medical issues by sadistic guards and health care staff. And like the state's unbelievable offer to cut his sentence nearly in half - from seven years to four - if he paid a $25,000 "fine, allowing Smitowicz and his family to literally buy less prison time! Yet Rebel Hell's relentless, unabashed humor [humor that is darker than the Marlboro Man's coffee [and his lung cancer]] delivers terrific reprieve from the awful circumstances. Smitowicz also somehow manages to find great beauty "Inside the razor-wire fences." His lyrical descriptions of multi-seasonal landscapes and weather and the prisons' nonhuman residents are like vivid blooming flowers amid the drear-gray monotony of prison life. The memoir also shines much- needed light on the catastrophic Drug War and the innately undemocratic, racially biased nature of America's so-called Justice System. Ultimately, Rebel Hell coalesces into a disturbing microcosm of contemporary U.S. society-and an unforgettably original story.


"One hell of a writer."

- Derrick Jensen, award-winning author of Endgame and the graphic novel As the World Burns


As soon as I began reading Jan Smitowicz's memoir Rebel Hell: Disabled Vegan Goes to Prison, the word "Kafkaesque" began tumbling through my mind, a word that goes on to make frequent and justifiable appearances throughout the book. Smitowicz writes . . . in a way that will leave you feeling as he did [while incarcerated]: enraged, frustrated, and bemused.

Rebel Hell . . . is not just about one man's experiences; rather, it provides a peak into a fundamentally flawed and unjust industry that is kept aloft by a failed War on Drugs and that relies on the continued degradation and humiliation of inmates. (Anyone who still believes the prison-industrial complex cares a lick about rehabilitation should read this book.) That said, this tome is not all drear hopelessness . . . the author peppers bits of acerbic humor throughout as a kind of salve . . . further salve is offered via the innovative ways with which the author plays with traditional narrative forms, making the book's style as creatively rebellious as the author . . . [his] memoir will keep you turning pages in wonder of what will happen next, of what he'll say next, and of what bureaucratic absurdity will manifest next.

- Kim Socha, Ph.D., author of Animal Liberation and Atheism: Dismantling the Procrustean Bed.

I simply couldn't put [this] book down! . . . Jan [is] brutally honest but deeply empathic . . . stunning . . . remarkable . . . engender[s] the sense that I now know this man on a thorough and deeply personal level. I suffered when he suffered. Feared when he feared. And I was overjoyed when he triumphed.

Despite the dreadful circumstances, Jan somehow unearths humor in the very darkest places-and does so throughout. On many occasions, I found myself laughing right alongside him amid some of the most outrageously frustrating situations imaginable.

Rebel Hell is a memoir-a story-like no other.

- From the foreword by Professor Todd Shackelford, Ph.D.



Hell on Wheels

We exit the "Rainbow Tunnel" and the Golden Gate Bridge flares into existence within our visual frame. Wispy morning fog lies in sheets across the exponential growth curves of bright red steel looping up to those iconic turrets. Lime-green hills rise and then roll off toward the coast on our right: the lovely Marin Headlands, painted with bright electric grass and clay-red rock clusters and sporadic tufts of lupine wildflowers in vivid lavender. The sparkling San Francisco Bay Area in full bloom. That sweet springtime melody ringing out from all directions. It's just past 7:00 a.m. - a time of day I adore yet almost never see; my sleeping patterns simply don't jive with early morning. I'm driving. Smoking an American Spirit cigarette and mindfully, even aggressively savoring the taste with every drag. The window's cracked just enough to flick off ash and exhale, emptying my lungs of smoke. Not many cigarettes left to enjoy for the foreseeable future - a length of time that might as well be forever.

A sidelong look at Rachel - my fiancée, best friend, and constant companion of three and a half years. She's staring out her window, eyes fixed on the same spot [which means anything that flits across her line of sight remains unregistered; it might as well be blank space]. The voluminous liquid clinging to her eyes indicates a kind of slow burn: a gut-level sorrow accumulated over extensive time. The sight pierces my heart with sadness. But I'm not crying. I sorta think I can't cry. Not now anyway. I've already begun constructing a thick, steel-reinforced concrete wall around my emotions, fiercely suppressing anything that manages to boil up to the surface.

The sun has risen in earnest now, its white-bright nuclear explosions flaring out in full view above the Berkeley Hills off to the left. Our tired, sleep-scrimmed gazes float east across the incandescent blueberry waters of the bay, its surface some 350 feet below us still as we're snaking down Highway 101. Down toward the bridge. The chilled brackish waters exist with perpetual full-contact Hi-how-are-ya-nice-ta-see-you-again! meetings - collisions - between pushy incoming ocean tides and westward-pressing freshwater from the complex, vein-like network of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Deltas that drain into the bay, their slow-gushing mouths many miles distant, farther even than Mt. Diablo's sunblasted silhouette jutting up from the Hayward Fault and just visible through the morning's grayish-brown haze. The water seems flat from way up here. Flat and calm and expansive. Its mesmerizing blue unblemished save for the hyper-white staccato dashes winking into and then just as ephemerally out of existence with the waves, those liquid masses rising in a flash, curling inward on themselves, and then dropping back to the surface in an oh-so-brief but powerful crash, their meeting broadcast outward in a delicate breath of mist. Accompanied always by that immutable sound. A sound humans seem to know instinctually, in our blood, our very DNA, and why not? We can, after all, gaze into the all but boundless past and imagine our distant ancestors crawling from the primordial sea, those waves' aural constancy the literal soundtrack to our evolution.

Pressure, momentum, mass, force . . . physical constants that govern the interplay between separate entities, all merging to create a reality that is somehow both [1] easily predictable by the laws of nature; and [2] utterly startling, unexpected, amazing. Perspective alters everything - in a way similar to how particles act differently when observed.

Just like this.

This whole scene.

All of it altered by my chronologically distant perspective: truth is, more than half a decade has passed since the events I'm describing. I could pretend otherwise - but one of my most important goals for this memoir is ruthless honesty, no matter how painful it may [will] be. Is. Every single time I open this manuscript, just like every time I grabbed my yellow legal pad while incarcerated and held it before my face to write. Fucking painful.

I maneuver Rachel's beat-up old Honda Civic around the last descending curves and onto the bridge. Speaking of pain ... I'm thinking how almost any part of the human experience can become pedestrian - or at least tolerable - via simple prosaic repetition. Can't it? Even horrifically shitty aspects of modern life, like debilitating physical pain. My pain.

See, on that searingly emotional early morning drive of ours - the gorgeous panoramic scenery unpurpling as post-dawn sunlight categorically brightens everything - I'm already hurting. Physically, that is, in addition to the ghastly parade of shorn emotions whirling cyclonically in my head. Hurting even though I already swallowed my standard morning dose of OxyContin [40 milligrams]! or OxyCodone Extended Release, you could also call it. For the typical humanoid, that amount of Oxy would result in nodding, slobbery heights of unimaginable euphoria. Forget pain! Unless you're experiencing catastrophic trauma-ish pain, like a protuberant broken bone, 40 mg of extended release Oxy is like Thor's hammer crashing down on a cantaloupe when it comes to vanquishing pain.

But not mine.

Of course not mine.

[The meds obviously help to an extent, or I wouldn't be taking them - but more on this later. Much more; it's not a frivolity or marketing ploy that the word Disabled appears in this memoir's very [sub]title ... sadly my condition is a dominant force in life, so it has to play a significant role in my story. Especially given the hideous, morally atrocious medical "care" I end up receiving.]

Let's see ... that morning, en route to San Francisco International Airport - May 18, 2010 - I'd been suffering from that level of debilitating, disabling pain for over a year and a half. The very real prospect of being denied even a semblance of adequate pain medication while incarcerated is among the most terrifying worries out of the litany occupying my mind. Twisting my guts into stiff mangled coils of nauseous radiation.

Rachel and I speak very little. The last several months have been filled with endless discussion. This morning, our sorrow and the huge gravity of impending separation makes conversation feel pitiably insubstantial. I stick U2's Achtung Baby album into the CD player. Hoping to chase off the potent introspection facilitated at the moment by silence. Between our seats, my right hand grips her left. Hard.

I flick a glance over at Rachel and see her eyes flooded yet again - or maybe it's yet still - with tears. I'm crying now, too, but more from the beautiful song that's playing ["Zoo Station" [a song I've heard easily a hundred times, though it never walloped me with emotion quite like this]]. Her tears have nothing to do with the music. I know because U2 has never really affected her much. In one of our silent expressions that say I love you, I give her hand a quick tight squeeze. She returns the gesture and holds fast for several seconds. Then I swipe the volume knob with my index finger to mute the music. After taking a deep breath and a moment to gather my thoughts, I forcefully inject strength into my voice, hoping to project confidence. Unambiguous and utter certainty. "We will get through this, okay babe?" I said this as much to myself as to her.

She nods vaguely, averting her gaze from mine.

"We will, Rachel. Promise you." I bring her clasped hand to my face and caress my lips ever so delicately over the velvety flesh between her wrist and knuckles. Then kiss each of her fingers in turn.