THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
                 Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: THURSDAY, June 23, 1994                    TAG: 9406220053 
SECTION: DAILY BREAK                     PAGE: E1    EDITION: FINAL  
DATELINE: 940623                                 LENGTH: Long 


{LEAD} IT'S A SLICK new magazine with a captive audience.

The inaugural issue offers poetry from prison, a tattoo-of-the-month contest, an advice column written by a bare-armed brute named Bubba and recipes for lonely guys - namely, guys behind bars.

{REST} Prison Life magazine contains 97 pages packed with articles titled ``Mother Teresa on Death Row,'' ``Tough Guys Open Up,'' and ``Confessions of a Drug Kingpin,'' and ads peddling harmonicas, foreign-language tapes, vitamins for building muscles and post-conviction legal advice.

It's a magazine for and about inmates - written largely by inmates - and edited by a couple of ex-cons (They're husband and wife). It's a bimonthly with an attitude. Just check out the subscription form, featuring a menacing Bubba. ``Subscribe or I'll kick your ass,'' it says.

Prisons are big business these days; America spends $20 billion a year to keep inmates behind bars. The number of state and federal prisoners soared to a record 948,881 in 1993 - nearly triple the 1980 number - and Congress is poised to toughen the penalties for dozens of additional crimes.

``There's no other publication that reaches this incarcerated population,'' said Editor-in-chief Richard Stratton. ``It's really become a business in this country. It may sound like we're trying to jump on this bandwagon, but we're not. We're trying to give the prisoners caught up in it a voice.''

Advertisers will spend $25,000 to show off their wares in the second issue, compared with $10,000 they spent in the June issue.

The philosophy of the magazine is to offer a forum to people who are in prison and interested in making positive changes in their lives.

``Prison Life is trying to take a firm stand against the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality,'' Stratton said. ``We also want to humanize the prison population to people who've never been there.''

Stratton and his wife, novelist Kim Wozencraft, know about prison life first hand. Both served time on drug charges. Wozencraft, also a former police officer, has published two novels, ``Rush,'' and ``Notes from the Country Club.'' The latter is being made into a movie.

Stratton says their wedding was one of the biggest parole violations in history, where the question asked by the ushers was: ``Did you do time with the bride or the groom?''

Stratton says he doesn't think he could be as effective as editor of the magazine without having served time.

``I just don't think I'd have the frame of reference,'' he said. ``It's the depth of experience I've had from being in prison eight years that makes the editorial content of the magazine ring true.''

Even publisher Joe Strahl, who came up with the idea for the magazine one day at 2 a.m., has five years of experience working in an Illinois prison commissary.

The June issue of Prison Life showed up some 25,000 strong in newsstands across the country. There are 20,000 subscriptions, and publishers sent another 80,000 copies to prisoners and corrections officials nationwide.

The phones at Prison Life's New York office have been ringing off the hook, Stratton says. And for weeks mailbags have arrived stuffed with 80 to 100 new subscriptions.

``We've been getting a lot of compliments from prison officials saying it's about time,'' Stratton said. ``They know. They're in prison too, eight hours a day.''

Far from the corrections world, plenty of people are intrigued by life behind bars, he says.

``There's a whole segment of society that's fascinated,'' Stratton said. ``A lot of people think, `There but for the grace of God go I.' More and more people know people who've been to prison.''

The magazine has recently caught the eye of The New York Times, People Magazine, 60 Minutes, Phil Donahue and National Public Radio. Executives are even negotiating a television show based on the magazine.

Bubba, the magazine's icon, is ``270 pounds of tattoos and hairy beefcake'' with a ``stir-crazy look in his eye.'' He's Prison's Life's twisted version of Dear Abby - combination jailhouse lawyer, confidant and shrink.

He answers questions like the one from ``Sleepless in San Quentin'' who is in a quandary about what to do about a celly who snores. Bubba's recommendation: pour warm Coca-Cola down his nose.

Each issue will feature a cellmate of the month, complete with a rap sheet including name, age, birthplace and other details. The June issue stars a 45-year-old Philadelphia native whose conviction is listed as continuing criminal enterprise and whose ambitions are screen-writing and film producing.

Coming attractions: a Prison Life-sponsored tennis tournament, a style section that may feature a woman's fashion show behind bars, stories on talent shows and even a spoof of GQ - what the well-dressed ex-con is wearing.

Prison Life also is an advocacy magazine, Stratton notes. It will campaign for changes in drug laws and speak out against the death penalty and mandatory sentencing.

``A lot of our readers really feel like they got shafted,'' he said. ``This magazine is not directed to the serial killers or the maniacs; it's for the people who got caught up in the criminal justice system and found themselves in prison and fascinated by the culture.'' by CNB