There are few substitutes for first-hand experience. When they take pen to paper, writing by prisoners can not only serve inmates personally but also inspire others advocating for prison reform. After all, statistics about incarceration can seem dry and abstract without stories to humanize them.
This doesn’t mean that it’s always safe or easy for inmates to tell their stories—depending on the state and institution, published writing can result in punishment. This is generally true when inmates aren’t allowed to make a profit while in prison, or where prison staff don’t adhere to First Amendment protections.
Even when there aren’t disciplinary consequences for writing while incarcerated, it’s tough for prisoners to reach editors. Internet access is, for the most part, limited or lacking in U.S. prisons, and so communications between editors and inmates can be time-consuming, or even impossible.
Many gatekeepers at publications rely on email for receiving pitches, sending edits, and other general communications. Still, there’s no shortage of writers in prison.
For people interested in reading about prison issues as they’re lived, several websites are especially helpful. Although they are outnumbered by mainstream publications that occasionally include inmate work, there are quite a few publications that focus on inmate writing. It’s challenging to provide a comprehensive list, but these projects will get you started:
The PEN America Prison Writing Program offers a curated collection of inmate writing, that includes creative as well as nonfiction writing, through its annual contest for prison writers. It also publishes the Handbook for Writers in Prison, a compendium of writing advice, as well as lists of recommended publications. The handbook is free for those in prison.
Prison Legal News (PLN) is a monthly print magazine with content also available online; both versions are bare-bones, largely monochrome affairs, with advertising that aligns with PLN’s ideological bent. PLN, the longest-running independent newspaper created by and for prisoners, was started by Paul Wright in 1990, while he was serving a murder sentence.
PLN has tackled controversy head-on, running campaigns over issues like the cost of prison phone calls, and filing lawsuits over censorship and bans of the magazine in a number of states. The bulk of its writers and subscribers are inmates. However, guest writers have included notables like linguist/activist Noam Chomsky and writer/activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Another mainstay of incarcerated people’s writing is Prison Writers, which takes donations and is run by a team of journalists. The site sometimes receives more submissions than it can handle, and the fact that its articles are undated can be a bit disorienting. Still, it cultivates relationships with a regular team of writers, helping to provide a sense of continuity.
The American Prison Writing Archive is an ambitious work-in-progress hosted by Hamilton College in New York State, aiming to eventually be the most comprehensive and searchable collection of writing by incarcerated people. The archive is searchable by characteristics including the type of employment the writer has while in prison (such as porter, greeting card creator, or “purposefully unemployed”). Due to the project’s limited resources, organizers are calling for volunteers to lend a hand with transcribing and digitizing the flood of essays sent in from prisons.
Prisons Foundation publishes inmate work ranging from comics and lyrics to screenplays and memoirs. Authors aren’t paid, and their works aren’t edited before being scanned and published online. Still, authors retain rights to their work, and the foundation encourages them to later seek republication with a commercial publisher.
One publication aiming to bring a more academic approach to writing by current and former inmates is the 29-year-old Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, based at the University of Ottawa. Although the journal’s content is still more personal than the papers in traditional scholarly journals, the content is generally longer and more analytical than in other publications.
One concern with publications that select inmate writing is the possibility of promoting a group of writers that doesn’t reflect the actual prison population. For example, white authors might be over-represented, even though black people are over-represented in U.S. prisons (making up 33% of inmates, compared to 12% of adults overall). The diversification of prisoner publications is a largely unstudied area, and of course an issue that affects mainstream publications as well.
It could be useful for the above-mentioned publications to integrate the voices of incarcerated people with those of others involved in the prison system, including not only loved ones but also prison administrators, scholars, and correctional officers. Whatever happens with these and other publications featuring writing by offenders and ex-offenders, it’s heartening that they exist.
In addition to offering sources of writing by prisoners, Christine Ro has written for Submittable about things white writers should stop doing.