Writing From the Inside

Prisoners share their stories

| May 24, 2007

When prisoners speak out, controversy often follows. That was the case when Deane Brown, while serving time at Maine State Prison's Supermax facility, provided information to Portland alt-weekly the Phoenix. After the newspaper exposed the abuse of mentally ill prisoners inside the facility in 2005, writes Lance Tapley for the Phoenix, Brown was denied contact with the media and transferred to a Maryland Supermax facility over 500 miles away. Brown, with the help of civil rights attorney Lynne Williams, has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that prison officials deliberately tried to violate Brown's right to the freedom of speech.

The erosion of the freedom of speech is a common current in the US legal system, but a few publications remain committed to showcasing prisoners' stories. Prison Legal News, a magazine 'dedicated to protecting human rights,' has been covering the prisons beat for 17 years. Each month, PLN reports on prison reform, litigation, legal decisions, and prisoners' freedom of speech. Contributors often include prisoners themselves, but have also featured the writing of prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky and Dan Savage.?

Words Without Borders is not normally a prison-focused publication, but the May issue showcases an international cast of writers from 'behind bars.' Because the publication aims to open international dialogue through literature on the web, many of the works are English translations. Highlights of the diverse works include 'Ballad of Ventas Prison,' a political comic strip based on a women's prison in Madrid in 1939, by Jorge Garc?a and Fidel Mart?nez. Also in the issue, Mario Benedetti's 'He Dreamed That He Was in Prison' tells the story of a prisoner whose consciousness shifts between his dreams of prison and his incarcerated reality.

Another place to go for prisoner writing is the PEN American Center. The well-known literary and human rights nonprofit holds an annual contest for writers in prison. Awards are given for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, and drama. The organization also publishes a handbook with tips on punctuation and style to help incarcerated writers.

For many prisoners, writing can be a therapeutic exercise, but too often their work goes unread. J.E. Wantz, winner of this year's PEN American Center prison writing award for nonfiction, submitted a heartbreaking story chronicling his struggles with the depression medication Paxil in the Oregon state correctional system. Now off of the drug, Wantz writes, 'If I am going to remain sane and have any hope of a future I have to face whom I have become and who I want to be.'


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