The twenty-first century has revolutionized the mode of production in a particular genre of literature called prison literature. Prisons are strict about incoming and outgoing communication, and restitutions and state legislature—such as the Son of Sam law—are enforced to make sure inmates don’t profit off of their crimes. The decision to publish or not publish prison literature walks a judicial tightrope, one where falling either left or right means landing in a grey zone.
In 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program was established to offer one of few outlets for free expression to America’s incarcerated population. Based on the strong belief in the restorative and rehabilitative power of writing, the program provided skilled writing teachers, an audience, and a platform of free expression for the incarcerated.
Similarly, Houston-based Vidahlia Press and the digital publishing software company Pubsoft, teamed up in 2013 to host INK, a writing contest open to any and all inmates in prisons across America. In an interview with Fast Company, Vidahlia’s founder Roy Rodney comments that as a startup press, they wanted to do things differently in reaching out to the artistic community. Considering the fact that most incarcerated art never made it outside the confines of a cell in the past, PEN and INK seem to have ripped open the gates of a gold mine. How suspicious.
On the one hand, the argument and publicized motivation of such organizations to offer writing as a rehabilitative outlet for prisoners is probably true and has its merits. In the ethical debate of the right for free speech, those who support such writing programs that seemingly return free speech to the physically confined seems to have the upper hand. After all, who is to decide that in a world that prioritizes and sees the worth of free speech, those who are physically confined should be silent?
On the other hand, the works by winners of such competitions are featured in anthologies, which essentially paint the entire movement as a talent identification program. Is it possible that these publishers have sniffed out and identified a potential economic source they can exploit that slumbers within the walls of prison facilities? There is a chance that this movement to rehabilitate through writing is actually a facade to mask the fact that by ‘reaching out to a new creative community’, publishers have in fact found a new source of income, fuelled by the intriguing and mysterious aura of the prison writer.
Furthermore, the publisher retains the power in deciding what gets published and what remains hidden from the public eye. I find it difficult to believe without suspicion that this power the publisher holds, to give voice to some and silence others, can really be considered part of a movement to return freedom of speech. Here I’m reminded of a line in Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, which says: “Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.” It is by reading the works the publishers and editors reject that we as an audience can truly understand the motivations of publishing prison literature anthologies.