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Connecticut Prison Writing Program Leads to Lawsuits

by David M. Reutter

Wally Lamb was an English teacher when he published his first novel, She’s Come Undone, in 1992. It became a huge hit after Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. In 1999, Lamb began a writing workshop at a Connecticut women’s prison, the York Correctional Institution.

The prisoners’ writings were edited by Lamb, and in 2003 he published an anthology of autobiographical essays titled Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters. It was published by HarperCollins and became a huge hit after being featured on 60 Minutes.

As reported in PLN, that success resulted in state officials suing to recoup the costs of the women’s incarceration, but the state later settled the case and allowed the prisoners to keep proceeds from the book because they were not profiting from their crimes and the money was not a windfall. [See: PLN, Feb. 2005, p.34].

A second book from the prison writing program, I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison, followed in 2009. Then Lamb put together another anthology, You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths, which was bought for $20,000 by Counterpoint Press, a small publishing house in California. The 14 contributing writers were each to receive around $1,400. Some of the women, however, were upset.

Chandra Bozelko, a former prisoner who contributed to the book and a Princeton graduate, freelance journalist and vice president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, filed suit in state court against Lamb, Counterpoint Press and talent agency Anonymous Content in May 2019, alleging fraud and emotional distress.

“This last book distorted everything the program was about and what was supposed to be achieved by women telling their stories,” she said. “The behavior that [Lamb] has shown toward the contributors challenges the narrative.” Bozelko said she was promised a contract and payment but received neither.

“In all honesty, my exchanges with some of you have left me feeling fed up, discouraged, and disrespected,” Lamb wrote to the contributing writers in March 2019. “When I committed to editing and publishing a third volume of work by past and present members of the York workshop, I handed you an opportunity to speak to a wider audience and – ideally – to be agents of change at a rare time when the country is increasingly receptive to prison reform. I confess that I did not expect to be blindsided by what, in my opinion, is frivolous hassling, cajoling, and self-interested complaining.”

The latest book is now “on hold,” said Lamb’s attorney, former Connecticut Supreme Court justice Joette Katz, who added the prison workshop “is something he’s done as a labor of love.” The lawsuit is “a classic case of no good deed goes unpunished.”

Prisoner Tracie Bernardi is also a plaintiff in Bozelko’s suit. Bernardi expressed disappointment with the $1,400 advance for her essay, and disagreed with Lamb’s plan to donate all royalties from the book to the state victim advocate’s office and a college program at York run by Wesleyan University, though she supported some money going to those programs. Prison officials said they were investigating to ensure the women had agreed to have their essays published.

That investigation found no wrongdoing by Lamb, and the writing program was reinstated in September 2019. 

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Sources: courant.com, middletownpress.com, chicagotribune.com, nytimes.com, Associated Press