Jack London, Ken Kesey, William Burroughs, Oscar Wilde, Malcolm X, Voltaire, Cervantes, E.E. Cummings, Martin Luther King, Mark Twain—all literary legends who spent time behind bars. Some only a few nights, others years. A few even penned classics while in the joint.
Unlike those lucky standouts, most incarcerated art doesn't make it outside the confines of a cell. But that may be changing. Random House recently paid six figures for the rights to a handwritten prison memoir titled "The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict, or the Inmate of a Gloomy Prison."
Now a Texas publishing company is searching for the next great incarcerated writers—something never possible before software, thanks to strict laws about communicating (and, of course, planning entrepreneurial creative efforts) with prisoners. Here's how they're pulling it off.
Houston-based Vidahlia Press and Publishing House and the digital publishing software company Pubsoft have teamed up to host INK, a writing contest open to any and all inmates in prisons across the country.
Winners of the Vidahlia contest will be featured in an anthology to be published in print and online, but also via Pubsoft, a web platform which is offering the new inmate authors presale, sponsorship, and marketing help—areas where even big traditional publishers can be flaky.
"It’s a talent identification program," explains Roy Rodney, Vidahlia’s founder, who says he is "blown away by the history of writers in prison."
Inmates are listening—and they’ve been writing and submitting in huge numbers. More than 5,000 incarcerated men and women have sent pieces of poetry, non-fiction, fiction, dramas, and graphic novels. Now it’s up to Vidahlia to get to work, reading and picking winners, no easy task. Especially since most entrants didn’t send neat printed documents or PDFs. Submissions were largely scribbled "by hand on loose-leaf parcel," says Rodney. Others "typed, sent via fax, email, and family members."
Winners will also receive cash prizes of up to $500 per category, and the option of free tuition for yearlong online or correspondence programs in fine arts or creative writing. Winners will be announced on July 4th.
The year-old publishing house combed through entries with the help of Houston University English majors, who spent Saturdays reading and screening before sending to Brenda Marie Osbey, the poet-in-residence at Brown University, and the editor of the anthology. The top 25 submissions were then run through Pubsoft’s plagiarism detection software to make sure they were kosher.
"As a startup press we wanted to do some things differently in reaching out to the artistic community," Rodney says in a thick Texas drawl.
It’s different, all right—and borderline illegal. That’s because prisons are very strict about incoming and outgoing communication, and because of restitutions and state legislature, making sure inmates don’t profit off of their crimes is a judicial tightrope. But that didn’t stop the dedicated people behind INK.
"It’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask permission," says Rodney, whose small staff reached out to 2,200 prisons, jails, halfway houses, unions, civil rights associations, "anybody traditionally a stakeholder or an advocate for or against the state of the prison system."
They took out ads in prison newsletters and periodicals like Prison World and Prison Legal News, smuggling in contest literature with the help of the American Correctional Association, which gave mailing lists and posters advertising the contest to each institution's school or library.
"It’s a way for us to shine a light on the kind of talent actually institutionalized," explains Rodney, who says Vidahlia plans on publishing a separate book of poetry, short fiction, and essays in addition to the anthology.
Instead of getting a slap on the wrist, in an unexpected twist, many prisons, and the men and women running them, have opened their arms to Vidahlia and INK.
"There is a great deal of talent in the system," says Daryl Greenridge, a staffer at the American Correctional Association. Greenridge says he fell in love with the idea of "turning negative energy into something positive," and became a valuable advocate for INK, lobbying for the program at prisons around the country.
"Writing naturally becomes a therapy," says Nick Lindsay, a PhD student studying English literature in Buffalo, New York. A few weeks ago he finished a pilot creative writing workshop at Erie County Correctional in Alden, New York. His students—prisoners.
Lindsay says that experience, while trying, offered a cathartic emotional outlet for the inmates. Daily writing instilled "a change in my students," he says. "There’s a way that writing serves to prepare people to give concrete shape to the mind and soul. This way we can work through things that are otherwise unintelligible."
"We’re the largest prison writing contest in the U.S., which might make us the largest everywhere," says Rodney. Next year he plans to make INK even bigger by incorporating Spanish-language submissions.
Dougal Cameron, Pubsoft’s COO, says he’d like to expand the online reach of the contest, allowing Vidahlia to accept digital submissions ongoing. Cameron wants to "develop talent from the incarcerated population by providing an e-commerce space for the general public, to easily find and purchase digital versions of the works of incarcerated individuals."
In 2011, a St. Martin’s Press subsidiary called Minotaur Books held a private-eye novel writing contest with a $10,000 advance prize and a guaranteed publishing contract. The winner, Alaric Hunt, was a 44-year-old literary phenom, and unbeknownst to Minotaur, a prisoner in a maximum-security facility in Bishopville, South Carolina. He was serving a life sentence for murder, but he was also a damn good writer. Good enough that Minotaur’s editors overlooked his past. Because South Carolina allows prisoners to profit from their work and has repealed its own Son of Sam law, there were no legal complications. (That said, Hunt didn’t write about his own crime.)
Still, exchanging edits and communicating with Hunt proved challenging, and personal appearances and book signings were out the window, a problem winners of INK will face. But three years later, Hunt’s book "Cuts Through Bone," was released and is now on sale on Amazon, paving the way for other authors like him.
"Stepping out of one's everyday reality and into confinement brings a quietness that allows for true reflection and insight, the pillars of good writing," she says, while also offering prisoners a boost in "positive esteem, identity, and self-worth."
About 2 million people are locked up in state, federal, and private prisons in the U.S., about 25% of the world’s prison population. "More prisoners than any democracy in the history of the world," laments Rodney.
While some are guilty of heinous crimes, and deserve punishment, many serving time are nonviolent offenders, addicts, and the mentally ill. Instead of providing rehabilitation, incarceration usually becomes a stepping stone to more crime. Most businesses won’t hire felons, and the rate at which parolees return to lockup mirrors a revolving door, feeding the deep pockets of institutions more than helping fix offenders.
If inmates do make it to the outside, lacking confidence, job, and social skills, they often turn to the option that probably landed them inside: crime. One way to stop this pattern is to give the incarcerated desperately needed positive alternatives while they’re imprisoned. Like the arts.
Rodney knows this cycle firsthand. Before he went to law school, became an attorney, and started Vidahlia, he fell into the same snake pit that has disproportionately captured so many young black men.
"It also happened to me," Rodney recalls. "A judge sentenced me for four months for filing taxes three months late. Instead of a federal compound, I went to a highly secured facility."
Rodney says he had restricted privileges, but was able to work at the prison library, which was in a "terrible state," but provided him a "therapeutic" escape.
When he got out, Rodney was determined to change the pattern and raise awareness, especially the rate at which institutionalization affects African-American and Latino communities. "Children of victims, fathers in prison, destitution in family, general malaise, hopelessness. My experiences have allowed me to be involved in something that can help others. We want to prevent people from going back."
Trevor Streeter was 19 when he was sent to Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California in 2005. For Streeter, then an active gangbanger from South Central Los Angeles, it was his second strike. He was looking at five years for attempted murder of a rival gang member. No weapon was found in the case, and no witnesses testified, but because of his rep, the District Attorney pursued the case, sending Streeter on an up-north trip. It was his second felony.
As part of California’s infamous three strikes law, another conviction would have put him away for life. He was still a teenager, but he was aware of how deep the water he was playing in. He says he decided then that he wanted to change his life. Barely an adult, he knew he didn’t want to spend the rest of his days in a cell. But he admits he didn’t have a clue how to get out of the gang culture that had swallowed his family for generations.
Streeter ended up serving a little more than two years at Ironwood before being paroled. He hasn’t been back since. Streeter says what got him through those tough times was his secret: writing.
"A lot of the way my writing process developed was in jail," he says. "I never did any before I was incarcerated."
Today, almost a decade later, and his 28th birthday fast approaching, Streeter barely resembles that troubled teen. He’s held down a job at UPS for the last year and a half, preloading trucks on the graveyard shift. And he’s left gangbanging behind him. An aspiring rapper and writer, Streeter says when he was in jail, he wrote poems for other inmates to send to their girlfriends in exchange for soup, snacks, and candy bars. What really changed him was the self-reflection gained when he put pen to paper, alone in his cell, with nothing but time and his sins to keep him company.
"The only confidence I had left as a human being was what I was writing," he says.
Streeter, who says he uses rap as an emotional release, wished there was a program like INK when he was locked up.
"It’s a good outlet," he says. "It can definitely boost their confidence, for one. Going to jail is not a confidence booster. Being able to come from a place of nothing with something makes prisoners feel like they can actually do something with themselves on the outside."