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How Don Diva Became the Magazine for Prisoners and Those Who Follow Them [NY TIMES ARTICLE]

How Don Diva Became the Magazine for Prisoners and Those Who Follow Them [NY TIMES ARTICLE]

Words by Alan Feuer of the NY Times

In traditional crime reporting, the inside details come from the authorities. Who pulled the trigger? The police department tells you. How was the heroin shipped across the border? The federal agent or prosecutor knows.

But then there is the crime reporting in Don Diva magazine, a street-life publication that is often written for — and occasionally by — those who live in prison. When Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit, was convicted four years ago of racketeering, he gave Don Diva an interview for Issue 45 before he was sentenced. The Jamaican drug lord Christopher M. Coke, who is known as Dudus, sends the editors letters from his federal penitentiary.

In its nearly two decades on newsstands and in cellblocks, the gritty quarterly, which calls itself the Original Street Bible, has offered scoops on hip-hop killers and cocaine kingpins, all of whom have trusted that its editors would get their stories right.

“Our pages are often the first place that criminals come to talk about themselves,” said Tiffany Chiles, who founded Don Diva in 1999 with her husband, Kevin Chiles, himself a former inmate. “That’s how we got started — trying to give voice to voiceless people.”

In traditional crime reporting, the inside details come from the authorities. Who pulled the trigger? The police department tells you. How was the heroin shipped across the border? The federal agent or prosecutor knows.

But then there is the crime reporting in Don Diva magazine, a street-life publication that is often written for — and occasionally by — those who live in prison. When Kwame M. Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit, was convicted four years ago of racketeering, he gave Don Diva an interview for Issue 45 before he was sentenced. The Jamaican drug lord Christopher M. Coke, who is known as Dudus, sends the editors letters from his federal penitentiary.

In its nearly two decades on newsstands and in cellblocks, the gritty quarterly, which calls itself the Original Street Bible, has offered scoops on hip-hop killers and cocaine kingpins, all of whom have trusted that its editors would get their stories right.

“Our pages are often the first place that criminals come to talk about themselves,” said Tiffany Chiles, who founded Don Diva in 1999 with her husband, Kevin Chiles, himself a former inmate. “That’s how we got started — trying to give voice to voiceless people.”

The couple’s project — chronicling the illicit lives of convicts — has given Don Diva a veneer of authenticity in the underworld as glossy as its brash, alluring covers, though, it must be said, on at least one occasion an employee of the magazine suffered a fate similar to the subjects profiled within it. In 2009, a president of the publication, Sam Ferguson, was killed in his Chevrolet Impala in a drive-by shooting in Miami. More recently, Don Diva has found itself embroiled in a defamation lawsuit that other, more staid media outlets might not have been involved in.

That entanglement began in late 2007, when the magazine, in its 30th edition, published an interview with Kenneth McGriff, a Queens drug lord known as Supreme, who inaccurately stated that a former partner was a government informant and had testified against him.

Given Don Diva’s robust readership within the penal system, the subject of the error, Russell Allen, said he suffered shame and bodily harm while serving time himself. After almost a decade of defending himself, Mr. Allen sued the magazine in 2015 in Federal District Court in Brooklyn. He is seeking damages of $1 million from the Chileses, saying he has spent the last 10 years fending off their enraged and misled readers who think he is a “rat.”

Such are the hazards of publishing a product so popular with inmates and so replete with intimate criminal lore that prison officials have banned — or tried to ban — it from any number of correctional facilities. But not unlike samizdat novels in Soviet Russia, issues of Don Diva still make their way into prison yards today.

“It’s like gold in there,” said one former inmate who wrote for the magazine while he was serving time and asked for anonymity to preserve his post-incarceration reputation. “When I was locked up, I used to get copies and have like 20 dudes outside my door just waiting to see it. Everyone in there was pretty much reading it cover to cover.”

What appears between those covers are largely articles that investigate the intersection of crime and hip-hop culture: firsthand accounts by traffickers like Demetrius Flenory, a leader of the Black Mafia Family, a Detroit-based drug ring that was known to run with rappers and was taken down in 2005 after the government accused it of running a multimillion-dollar criminal conspiracy.

But mindful of their mission to educate as well as entertain, the Chileses also publish more substantial fare: thoughtful takeouts on the drug war or on Confederate-era monuments in New Orleans. There is a regular column on legal advice — Raw Law — and a section called the Sticky Pages, which features models in thong bikinis.

“In order to get people up on the law and social justice,” Ms. Chiles said, “we’ve got to put the rappers and the girls in there.”

Though they keep their fingers on the cutting edge of street life, the Chileses see themselves as following in a long tradition of crime publications, one that reaches back to pulp magazines like True Crime Cases or National Police Gazette.

Before appearing in Don Diva, many of the stories they had told — about, say, Larry Hoover, a Chicago gangster who is serving six life sentences for murder and narcotics convictions — existed mostly as oral-historical myth.

“No one ever wrote this stuff down before,” Mr. Chiles said. “Before we were around, people just spoke about these guys.”

At a story meeting at their shared office space in Manhattan last month, several members of Don Diva’s staff were speaking about the cover article for Issue 61, which is to come out this month. The article concerned a new trend passing through the nightclub scene: how the younger set apparently had switched from selling drugs to doing credit card fraud.

“If you can spend someone else’s money on your bottles and your clothes, why spend your own?” said Fabian Phillips, a 20-something editor who had come up with the pitch. A clubgoer versed in the world he was describing, Mr. Phillips claimed to know a guy in Brooklyn who was the borough’s biggest scammer. “Was the biggest scammer?” Mr. Chiles cut in. It was clear he wanted is.

Sitting behind her laptop at the head of the conference table, Ms. Chiles steered the conversation toward Don Diva’s lawyer, Anthony Mayol, who serves as an adviser on matters of law and crime. It is part of the magazine’s modus operandi to rely on experts for inside information, and when Ms. Chiles asked what penalties a scammer might face, Mr. Mayol told her it depended on the victim.

“If they’re scamming a big bank, they probably won’t face too much in terms of a sentence,” he said. “But if they’re scamming small account holders, it’ll definitely be worse.”

More details followed. Roger Roman, the Los Angeles editor, who was joining by Skype, told the room that many fraud perpetrators sold the credit card numbers they stole in the clubs on dark parts of the internet. Ryan Smith, who runs Don Diva’s website, jumped in to say that he had heard that such transactions were often done through Bitcoin to disguise them.

This pleased Mr. Chiles. “That’s good,” he said. “That’s good. I like it that you ‘heard.’”

As the meeting came to an end, Ms. Chiles ran through the offerings for the News U Can Use page and the Diva’s Corner, a relationship and beauty section designed for female readers. There was a brief discussion on whether to try a fresh profile of the rapper Gucci Mane who was having a comeback after getting out of prison.

“I just want to be sure we get it right,” she said, shutting down her laptop. “That we give our readers the nitty-gritty.”

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