Writing From the Inside

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.’

?

Go there >>
Inmate Sues Prison Officials in Federal
Court

Go there, too
>>
Words Without Borders

And there >>
PEN
America Center: Prison Writing Program

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne Reader Archive:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to
Utne Reader

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.