by Ed Lyon
Curtis Dawkins is serving life without parole in Michigan. He has been imprisoned since 2005, after a crack-fueled series of crimes committed on Halloween night the year before left Tom Bowman dead. Dawkins is also a fiction writer whose first book, penned during his incarceration, was purchased by Scribner, a major publishing house. Now Michigan officials want Dawkins’ earnings from the book to cover the cost of his incarceration.
Prior to his murder conviction, the 49-year-old earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. In prison, Dawkins began to write as a way to pass the time. He sent short stories to his sister, who submitted them to literary journals. Jarrett Haley of BULL, a small literary magazine, helped him assemble his collection of short stories and obtain the services of an agent.
The short-story collection is now a book titled The Graybar Hotel, which Scribner bought in the summer of 2016. Dawkins split the first payment of his $150,000 advance fee with Haley, putting $50,000 in a fund to pay for his three children’s college tuition and school costs, text books and supplies, and dental and medical care.
Many states forbid prisoners from profiting off stories of their crimes by diverting any proceeds earned to the victim’s family. But nothing in Dawkins’ book referenced his crime or conviction, though in his acknowledgments he admits his sorrow for the murder he committed.
Nevertheless, Kenneth Bowman – the brother of Dawkins’ victim – told the New York Times that he believed any money Dawkins earned should go to the Bowman family or to charity. He also told the Detroit News not only that he wished Michigan had a death penalty but that he would volunteer to execute Dawkins himself.
Shortly after that, the Michigan Attorney General’s office filed suit seeking 90 percent of Dawkins’ proceeds from his book to defray his incarceration costs, which were calculated at $372,000 thus far. The state is also seeking any future royalties and earnings.
Michigan is one of at least 40 states with laws that force prisoners to pay the cost of their own imprisonment, though because most are poor or indigent, efforts to collection such costs are rare. During its last fiscal year, Michigan collected approximately $3.7 million from less than 300 of its almost 40,000 prisoners.
In 2015, after serving a 15-month sentence for a drug offense, Illinois paroled a prisoner who was left nearly penniless because the state seized most of a $31,690 settlement he had received following his mother’s death.
Florida prisoner Jeremy Barrett received a $150,000 settlement from the corrections department in 2011 for having his eye gouged out by another prisoner – then was immediately forced to return $55,000 to cover the costs of his three-year sentence.
The Brennan Center for Justice published a 2015 paper that argued “it is unreasonable to require a population whose debt to society is already being paid by the sentences imposed, 80% of whom are indigent, to help foot the bill.”
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior lawyer at the Brennan Center who wrote the paper, said depriving a prisoner of his freedom and then charging him for it “raises cruel and unusual punishment issues.”
While he fights the state’s lawsuit, Dawkins’ prison trust fund account has been seized and he is now allowed only $25 a month for his personal needs. The rest of his advance fee from Scribner was frozen, since Michigan has demanded that the publisher cease all payments pending the outcome of the litigation.
“He put his talents to productive use in a way that’s making the world a better place,” said Sharon Dolovich, professor and director of the University of California at Los Angeles Law School’s prison law and policy program. “It’s something that we as a society should be 100 percent supportive of.”
Dawkins, who remains at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, said he cannot afford an attorney and is representing himself. He is planning his defense strategy around a Michigan law that requires courts to “consider any legal and moral obligation that the defendant has to support children and a spouse.” State officials have contended that Dawkins has “no right to transfer the funds to his family.”
Sources: The New York Times, The Guardian, www.independent.co.uk
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