Connecticut Prison Writers Settle Lawsuit, Writing Program Reinstated
Writing Program Reinstated
by Michael Rigby
Eight Connecticut prisoners who were sued by the state after the publication of their book, Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters , will get to keep most of their earnings, according to the terms of an April 19, 2004, settlement. The state had sought $117 a day from each woman for every day they were in prison. For one of the authors, Barbara Lane, who also won a prestigious literary award, that amounted to a whopping $339,505.
The women composed the 11 essays comprising the book during a writing class taught by renowned novelist Wally Lamb at the York Women's Prison in Niantic, Connecticut. The writings were personal reflections and essays that had nothing to do with their crimes. Rather, the writings mused about the criminal justice system and contemplated the sexual abuse, violence, drugs, alcoholism, and poverty that are recurrent themes in the lives of many prisoners. The well written anthology caught the attention of Harper Collins, which decided to publish the book. As part of the deal, each woman would receive $5,600 in royalties following their release from prison.
But the fact that the women had actually earned money while in prison bothered state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. In January 2003, just before the book was released, Blumenthal sued to garnish the royalties. Blumenthal attacked the women's assets under the state's 1997 "cost of incarceration" law, which allows the state to sue prisoners for the cost of living in prison. Designed to gouge prisoners coming into a large amounts of money while in prison, the state Department of Administrative Services has used the law in more than 200 cases to confiscate over $1 million from prisoners.
Many free speech groups saw Blumenthal's attempt to sue the women as a veiled attempt to stifle free speech. In particular, PENa prominent New York literary group composed of 2,700 poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists, including Salmon Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and D.L. Doctorowcomplained to the attorney general's office.
When Blumenthal refused to drop the lawsuit, PEN decided to give Lane its Newman's Own Freedom of Expression award, which includes a $25,000 prize. The award is sponsored by actor Paul Newman. Officials at PEN said they gave Lane the prize to protest the law. "It's not like they're getting $5 million or even $500,000," said Larry Siems, director of PEN's Freedom to Write and International programs. "This is not a case of someone getting rich at taxpayer expense."
In early March 2004, when prison officials found out that Lamb had nominated Lane for the PEN award without their approval, they were incensed. "Nominating an inmate for an award attached to $25,000 is no small matter," York school principal Dorthula Greene wrote in a March 11, 2004 letter to Dale Griffith, a staff member who for five years has helped Lamb with the writing program. "As you know from the arduous process of publicizing the book ... actions such as this nomination take on monumental ramifications beyond you and Wally Lamb. The nomination should have not taken place without the knowledge of your supervisors."
Retaliation soon followed. On March 29, Department of Correction (DOC) Commissioner Theresa Lantz halted the writing program. Principal Greene ordered the class's hard driveswhich contained the personal writings of 15 women and represented five years worth of workerased and its computer disks turned over, according to anonymous sources who work at the prison. Griffith was transferred.
To some, the prison's reaction to the success of its own rehabilitative program was puzzling. "We were extremely disappointed to learn there had been this negative reaction inside the prison. It seemed like a real lost opportunity at York when there was limelight to be shared by everybody," said Siems.
The DOC's reaction made unwelcome headlines. In a subsequent April 13, 2004, meeting with Lamb, Lantz said the problem "boiled down to miscommunication" when Lamb failed to notify officials that he had nominated Lane for the prize. "That communication would have been greatly appreciated," said Lantz. "In the prison business you don't like surprises." Nor some would say, success by prisoners.
But critics argue that the DOC's handling of the situation was reflective of a larger public relations problem. "Their noses got out of joint here and they reacted badly. They should be celebrating," said Joanna James, a union representative of the Connecticut State Employees Association, which represents prison teachers. "I think the department reacted badly when somebody got a significant amount of attention who is an inmate."
After the meeting, Blumenthal announced that a settlement was on the horizon and praised the writing program's rehabilitative efforts. But Blumenthal's motives were not wholly altruistic. Only when it became clear that the book's royalties would not be huge did he become willing to settle. "Bringing the action certainly was within the authority to enforce the law. But at the same time this settlement recognizes that the book was not a cornucopia of financial riches," he said.
On April 19 the state settled with the women for $500 each, with the York writing program receiving $3,500 and the remaining $500 going to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
In addition, Lane will get to keep her $25,000 prize from PEN, said Blumenthal, adding that "Barbara Lane will never be required to pay $300,000-plus for her incarceration." Lamb's writing workshop was reinstated with its original staff of Lamb and Griffith, and prison officials are now promising to expand the program.
Lamb was unable to meet with the women until April 23, but they were pleased to learn that the computer files containing their writing had been recovered from a backup file. Lamb said it will take time to rebuild the program and the women's trust, but the process has begun. "At long last, the Department of Correction not only sees the value of the program, but has now gotten behind it," he said.
State legislators are now considering changing the law to distinguish between prisoners making money from a skill learned in prison and those who come into sudden windfalls from lawsuits, the lottery, or inheritances. "There is a need to refine and improve [the law] so that it does not apply to income earned after someone is released from prison, and impede the return to productive activity," Blumenthal said.
Although this story ends happily, it's the exception and not the rule. The majority of prison writers remain oppressed as prison officials around the country search for ways to silence them. PLN is currently challenging the Florida prison system's practice of punishing prisoners who receive payment for their writing. See PLN , December 2003, p. 14, and this issue for more.
Sources: The Day, Republican-American, Associated Press, Hartford Courant