Bob Shell: Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head Again

Mickey and Steve. Philadelphia 1995. Photo: Tony Ward, copyright 2021

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2021


Censorship Rears Its Ugly Head Again


I am, and always have been, a very strong proponent of freedom of speech in its broadest sense, including not just speech, per se, but also all forms of expression. Censorship, thought control to put it bluntly, is one of the few genuine evils in this world.
As an involuntary guest of the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC), I’ve railed against the stupid censorship imposed by that organization.
When I first came into the system in 2008, we could subscribe to Playboy, Penthouse, etc. I didn’t, but could have if I’d wanted to. Explicit photos were sold to inmates by several firms, most notably Surrogate Sisters in Las Vegas. I didn’t buy any, but they were common in every pod I was in, some men spending lots of money on them.
Then, for some reason, the DOC decided we couldn’t have any of that anymore. Men had to turn in those magazines and pictures or face disciplinary charges. It was sudden and unexpected, with no reimbursement for lost money.
I had nothing on the disapproved list to turn in, but some men had hundreds of dollars invested in magazines, books, and pictures that were now verboten.
For years I subscribed to Rolling Stone, Traveler, Wired, Vogue, and several photography magazines, including Shutterbug, Popular Photography, Rangefinder, Professional Photographer, and some others.
I let my subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Traveler, Wired, Vogue, and all the photography magazines except Professional Photographer and Nature Photographer expire, because under the new censorship rules I might only get one out of four. The rest were disapproved and confiscated.
The new nudity policy bans any bare female breast. Bare male breasts are OK with the DOC censors, though, a blatantly sexist policy. If a female nipple is visible, even covered by form-fitting fabric, the magazine is disapproved.
Disapproved publications are sent to the DOC’s Publication Review Committee, which, in one of those meaningful coincidences, has the same initials as the People’s Republic of China, and is just as un-American. Sometimes, the PRC overrules the institutional decision and we get the magazine or book, but the process takes months.
After photographing nude women for 40+ years, it’s pretty ludicrous for someone to tell me that I’ll somehow be harmed, or my ‘rehabilitation’ set back, by seeing a bare female breast, or the outline of one in tight clothing.
I’ve filed a First Amendment suit in Federal court over this idiotic policy, but these civil rights cases move through the courts at a snail’s pace. I filed the suit in 2016 and it has not reached final settlement yet.
This issue reared its ugly head again recently when the July issue of Professional Photographer was disapproved for ‘nudity.’ I asked a friend who also subscribes to check out the July issue for me. He’s gone through it carefully and can’t find any nudity, so I must utilize the cumbersome and almost always futile grievance process to protest. Almost all grievances are ruled ‘Unfounded’ by the DOC honchos, so no matter how sound my argument, I’ll almost certainly lose.


About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author, former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine and veteran contributor to this blog. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read additional articles by Bob Shell, click here:

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Here’s the link: 


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