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Prison Writers Punished for Success in Connecticut and Texas

Censorship has slithered like an unseen serpent into the crevices of the First Amendment and built its noxious nest in our nation's prisons. Prisons across the country, both state and federal, have singled out prison writers for persecution and even prosecution [PLN, Jan. 2003].

Recently, Connecticut's Attorney General Richard Blumenthal filed a lien against eight women writers who put together a book,while prisoners at the York Correctional Institute. The book, Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, was not initially intended for publication. Highly successful author Wally Lamb, who teaches a writing workshop at the prison, originally assembled the collection of personal essays for his student's close family and friends. But, when Lamb's publisher, Harper Collins, got word of the collection they saw the potential for a winner.

Imprisoned Sisters immediately netted each contributor $6,000. That's what the state is trying to confiscate along with any future earnings. A vague 1995 law allows the state to make prisoners pay for the cost of being incarcerated, over $100 per day. The law is seldomly and only selectively enforced.

Since Connecticut does not require a disclosure of assets upon incarceration, wealthy prisoners who come to prison with money are seldom affected. However, should a prisoner come into a windfall the state is quick to garnish the money. John Filippi inherited $134,000 from his grandfather. The state took $121,000.

Lamb, an occasional guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, accuses the state of harboring a more insidious motive. He believes that the Commissioner of Corrections pushed for prosecution against the women because the essays were critical of the prison. The defendants agree.

"I think they're worried, `cause the doors are open now to what's really going on inside the facility," says contributor Robin Cullen, who has already been released. "Voices are coming out from behind the walls."

Contributor Nancy Whitely points out, "If I went to jail and took a cabinet-making class and got out and made money making cabinets, I wouldn't be getting a bill."

Blumenthal admits he is concerned about the haphazard application of the law but denies retaliation is a factor. He maintains that inasmuch as their incarceration is responsible for the women's success, the state is entitled to share in their profits.

Whitely pointedly asks, "How about the rapes? How about the beatings? Are they responsible for that? I'll be happy to give them every single penny I make from this book," she says, "if they'll also take responsibility for all the girls who come out and die, or commit suicide inside."

The adder's den in Texas has also claimed a victim. William Bryan Sorens, a state prisoner caged in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for nineteen years on a rape conviction, recently received a major disciplinary case because he writes articles for money. Sorens was originally eligible for release in 2005no more. Exercising his First Amendment right has earned him an extra year in prison. He will now not be considered for parole until 2006.

Oficially, Sorens' infraction is listed as "establishing and/or operating an unauthorized business enterprise within TDCJ." But close scrutiny reveals that censorship factors heavily into Sorens' sanction.

Sorens has realized impressive literary success under the veil of anonymity. In 2001 his article vivdly depicting prison violence entitled "Hardcore Hate" was published in Playboy under the unoriginal pseudonym John Doe. Recently, Sorens sold an article to Penthouse magazine decrying prison censorship. The piece was set to be published in August 2003 but the recent developments in Sorens' situation have put the piece on hold.

"I felt it was silly to run a piece about censorship in the abstract, when he was being directly affected," said Penthouse editor Peter Bloch.

Sorens insists that his disciplinary woes are merely an attempt to muzzle his journalism. "TDCJ doesn't want my articles on Islamic prisoners and unstemmed violent escapes to see print," Sorens told reporters. "I was in effect sentenced to one year for writing."

Sorens also writes for and edits "white nationalist" newsletters. He is quick to say things like "Islam is but the grandfather tree of a branch of idolatry called Freemasonry," and "the recently coined term `racist' is an inflammatory propaganda word used as a political sledgehammer to silence good and decent people."

But Sorens' politics aside, the truth is that he and many other Texas prisoners have been writing professionally for years. Prisoner Bobby Delgado writes Christian tracts for a San Antonio ministry called "Prison and Praise." The tracts are distributed nation wide and sell for $9 to $12 apiece.

Jorge Antonio Renaud produced the book Behind The Walls, published by North Texas University Press and reviewed in the August 2003 issue of PLN. For years Renaud also wrote for The Echo, an officially sanctioned TDCJ newspaper for prisoners.

"It's not as if they don't know I'm getting paid," says Renaud. "My checks go to the Inmate Trust Fund," a bank account that prisoners can draw on for commissary purchases.

Several PLN writers also reside in TDCJ although to date none has been singled out or sanctioned. In fact it is a PLN columnist that may provide the precedent for Sorens' legal defense, if he decides to mount one.

Mumia Abu-Jamal writes regularly for PLN and recently released a scathing book about life on death row entitled All Things Censored. [Available from PLN. See pages 38-39.] Ironically, he is also the type of person Sorens is quick to villify.

In 1998, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia held that the ban on business rule was unconstitutional as applied to prisoner writers and enjoined its application. See: Abu-Jamal v. Price, 154 F.3d 128 (3rd Cir. 1998).

No doubt there is a double standard at work in TDCJ. Most Texas prisons have craft shops where prisoners make and sell leather goods, art, woodwork and jewelry. Law enforcement officers and prison guards are among their chief customers. Many of these prisoners make an enviable profit _ no small detail in one of the few states that does not pay its prisoners for their labor _ where a pint of ice cream, a bag of coffee, or even a tube of toothpaste is a valuable commodity.

Craftshop workers are called "piddlers" and "piddling is authorized" says TDCJ attorney Carl Reynolds. "But writing for pay isn't."

Meredith Martin Rountree, spokesperson for the ACLU of Texas says "there is good case law out there" to show "that prisoners' constitutional rights can be abridged only if prisons can show that the exercise of those rights would threaten security."

But it is not institutional security that is being threatened by Sorens' writings. Rather it is institutionalized slavery and censorship, a mainstay of Texas prisons, that is being threatened. It is institutionalized isolation and dehumanization that is being exposed. And Texas is serious about keeping its oppressive institutions in place.

Despite the fact that such noted figures as Jack London, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Henry David Thoreau and many more have penned their lines from behind prison walls, and despite the fact that education is the only proven method effective in reducing recidivism, censorship is lurking in the cellblock shadows coiled, poised to strike a naive America. Because abuse and injustice against anyone has a way of affecting everyone.

So while a few articulate and insightful prison writers may be getting paid for exposing-institutional injustice and corruption, they are also paying a price. The question is, is the price too high? [Note: PLN offers books for both the serious legal writer and the casual reader. See: Writing to Win: The Legal Writer and Prison Writing in 20th Century America in the back of this issue.]

Sources: Hartford Courant, San Antonio Express News, Christian Science Monitor

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