Prison Literature – Part 3: Ethical & Commercial Barriers

Prison Literature Series 3
Image credit: ericadalmaso

Bramina Braet

In the twenty-first century, many prisons offer writing programs for the estimated nine million people around the world who are incarcerated. Prison writing programs provide inmates with an avenue to express themselves freely and encourage the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. “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,” Laura Pepper Wu, an editor of The Write Life Magazine says, while also offering prisoners a boost in “positive esteem, identity, and self-worth.” While some are guilty of terrible crimes, others are nonviolent offenders, addicts, or mentally ill. Instead of providing rehabilitation, incarceration usually becomes a gateway to more crime. Inmates who lack confidence, job and social skills when they are released often turn to the option that landed them inside prison: crime. One way to stop this pattern is to give them a positive alternative while they’re imprisoned, such as the arts. However, despite the rehabilitative and restorative qualities that writing may provide to the incarcerated, there are commercial and ethical barriers that question the extent to which prisoners should be able to benefit from their writing.

In October 2004, Curtis Dawkins smoked crack, dressed up for Halloween in a gangster costume and terrorized a household, killing one man and taking another hostage in a rampage that drew 24 patrol officers and a six-member SWAT team. He is currently still serving a life sentence without parole in Michigan, but he recently released his debut story collection, “The Graybar Hotel”, with Scribner. The collection consists of stories, which take place in jail or prison and are narrated in the first person by an unnamed prisoner, evidently influenced by his experiences as a criminal and prisoner. The unlikely story of how Mr. Dawkins, a recovering addict and confessed killer, landed a major book deal is a strange inversion of the usual prison-writing trajectory. Its release has raised uncomfortable questions for publishers as it tries to win over booksellers and critics to rally behind a work by an unknown debut writer—who is also a convicted murderer. After all, it is not far from the truth to claim that Mr Dawkins will benefit from his crimes as they bring in unexpected revenue.

To be fair, Mr Dawkins has explained that any money he earns from his writing goes into an education fund for his children, who are innocent and should not have to suffer for their father’s mistakes. But from the perspective of the victim’s family members, how is it acceptable that the man who killed their loved one is now earning money from what should be a lifetime punishment spent in remorse? Kenneth Bowman, the victim’s younger brother, expresses this resentment and frustration: “I don’t think he should have the right to publish anything,” said Mr. Bowman, a contractor in Phoenix. “He should be doing nothing in that prison but going through hell for the rest of his life.”

Prisoners in the United States are allowed to write and publish books under the First Amendment, so barriers to publication tend to be commercial and ethical rather than legal. In some states, convicts are prohibited from personally profiting from a work of nonfiction that describes their crimes, and money made from such works can be seized and put in a fund for victims or their families. But in 1991, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s “Son of Sam” law, which barred convicted criminals from profiting by writing books or creating other forms of entertainment based on their crimes. The court determined that the law was too broad and violated free speech protections, ruling in favor of the plaintiff, Simon & Schuster, which had paid the convicted mobster Henry Hill to publish a book based on his life.

Is it really ethical that mobsters and killers such as Henry Hill and Curtis Dawkins are profiting from their crimes? What can be done to prevent this and what should the publisher’s role be in this circumstance? Should they choose to publish and rake in commercial gains or refuse to publish to placate their moral conscience?

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