Being a Writer in Prison

I recently got to read an article written by another incarcerated person who was discussing some of the barriers to getting published as an incarcerated writer (Longworth, Art. (2019) “Why it’s so hard to write in prison”. April 23, 2019.) which created a bit of a dilemma for me, because he’s in the same prison as me. So I can authoritatively say he is super exaggerating things. But on the other hand, he’s my fellow incarcerated writer, and I should support him.

Eventually I arrived at the following: To fight the PIC people need a clear and accurate picture of what they are up against. By putting out a false narrative he makes it harder for people who want to support incarcerated people to do that work.

Also, he took a cheap shot at the prison library. I may have mentioned previously that the prison libraries in Washington prisons are friggin’ awesome. This is the only point of his I’m going to directly address. As for the rest I am going to present what I know to be accurate and leave it at that.

In Washington, the prison libraries are actually a part of the Washington State Library System. They do have difficulties because the amount of books they can physically have is limited by the size of the room the prison gives them to work in. They are further limited by the DOC’s mailroom and anti-technology policies.

The books are not “outdated and moldering”. There is an average of a dozen new
books coming in on a variety of fiction and nonfiction topics every month plus the donations that incarcerated people make to the library. We have access to Inter Library Loans and can even get books from university libraries.

The library clerks do epic level book surgery on books that get damaged or are falling apart from the sheer number of people who have read them. As long as all the pages are there (or can be photocopied from another book) they find ways to keep the book alive.
Yes, books on the PIC are overrepresented in the library, but that is from prisoner donations. I will also grant that yes, the library doesn’t have many books about prison written by modern American prisoners. Seems there isn’t much demand for any that don’t come with a strong prison abolitionist critique and all those get banned by the DOC.

With that out of my system, here is as accurate a picture I can paint of what a writer in prison has access to in a Washington state prison. Keep in mind that I can only speak from my own experience and that experience is limited to where I’ve been. 15 months in county jail, 10 months in WSR (Monroe) back when it was closed custody, 8 years in WSP-WC (Walla Walla) closed custody and am now back in WSR, but it is now a medium custody facility.

If I am indigent, that is, if I have no money, I can always get the following each store day:
+ a pad of wide ruled paper (50 sheets – $0.79)
+ 5 golf pencils ($0.08 ea.)
+ 5 pencil top erasers ($0.04 ea.)
If I get everything I incur a debt of $1.49 plus tax. Further more I can get up to 10 prefranked envelopes for the current cost of a stamp plus three cents each.

As with many things in life, if I have money suddenly more options are open to me.

If I have some money, as in a penpal who sends me $10 every couple of months, I am then able to afford some of the following from the prison store:
+ 2 pads of wide ruled paper ($0.79 ea. – 50 sheets)
+ 2 legal pads of wide ruled paper ($1.42 ea. – 50 sheets)
+ 2 Typing paper ($2.16 ea – 100 sheets)
+ 2 blue pens ($0.21 ea.)
+ 2 black pens ($0.21 ea.)
+ 5 standard #2 pencils ($0.15 ea.)
+ 5 envelopes 9×12 ($0.10 ea. – postage needed)
+ 40 prefranked envelopes (cost of stamp plus 3 cents each)

If I have more monetary support from a penpal or if I have a job that pays at least $25 bucks a month, I move up a rung in the socioeconomic ladder and can afford to buy things through the art curio or from Union Supply. Thus I am able to get the following: (prices given are for items purchased from Union Supply)
+ College Ruled paper
+ Wide ruled composition notebooks ($1.35 – 100 sheets)
+ Pens of various colors
+ Colored pencils
+ “Art” board
+ 5.5 in. Safety Scissors ($2.00)
+ glue
(think super old school “cut and paste”)

For people who have a job in Correctional Industries or have a lot of penpal support, or just get blinkeringly lucky like I did. (Thank you Trans Women of Color Solidarity Fund) There’s two typewriters on the Union Supply package. One with no memory for $192.00 and one with a 32kb memory (roughly 15 – 25 pages) for $297.00. There is an additional cost of $15 s and h plus tax on typewriters.

While getting a typewriter is not easy, using one isn’t cheap either with ribbons costing $10 a pop.

Having a typewriter is nice. It has, at minimum, doubled my productivity. On the other hand, when I spent a couple months in the hole two years back I knocked out the prewrite for a couple of novels and got halfway through the rough draft on one of them. And that’s writing with a rubber flex pen and two lines of text on each line of my 79 cent indigent paper. As much as solitary confinement sucks, it’s an excellent time to write. Assuming I can keep myself in paper and pens by trading the desserts from my lunch and dinner trays with other people. (which is a story in and of itself).

Figuring out what to write is a universal problem all writers face. For incarcerated people there is an added layer. Do I want to be a prison writer who writes about prison, or do I want to try an be a writer who happens to be incarcerated and writes about other things.

I’m a genre writer, and an essayist. So I want to do both. It is really hard to get my fantasy and science fiction published. I don’t have internet access, so no digital submissions unless a penpal does it for me. Also, no googling calls for submission. It’s kinda hard to get your foot in the door if you can’t find the door. Conversely, I’m having very little difficulty finding places that will accept submissions of prison writing. The question then becomes which projects do I want to support with my writing? I know that paying gigs and places where I am cited as the author of what I’ve written are both few and far between individually, and I am yet to find somewhere that does both. (Seriously, if you know of somewhere, I have a half dozen people here at WSR who all desperately want to know. Please leave snail mail and URL as a comment.)

This forms a second layer of censorship after the DOC prison mailroom. I am a writer. If I write something, I want to see my name in print next to it, not due to ego (ok, maybe a little due to ego, but mostly) because that means I can put in on my resume which in turn makes getting the next thing I write published easier. Means getting paid for my writing becomes easier.

While I haven’t allowed getting paid to become a motivation for my writing, I would like to bring in some money to pay back all the wonderful support Megan and others have given me and possibly support myself for a bit.

Another consideration for where I submit my writing to relates to who’s the readership. Is this a newsletter that is (mostly) only going to be seen by other prisoners or is it somewhere that has a wider non-incarcerated audience. While prison newsletters are important because they are a space for us to talk to each other about our collective experience as incarcerated people, they usually don’t end up getting read much outside prisons. There was recently some fairly large news stories about prison conditions in Arizona and Louisiana prisons. It became newsworthy only when the feds got involved. I have been reading about those exact same issues for years in prison newsletters. What use is me calling out corruption if the only people who hear are under the same boot-heel I am?

Before anything I write gets to the point where it’s possibly getting considered for publication anywhere, it has to make it past the mailroom. Which is insane. I never know if something I write is going to get blocked. I sent out a picture of myself with frizzy hair last week, it got blocked because they claimed it would encourage other people to break the rules. I have no idea how frizzy hair equals rule breaking, but that is the level of logic we are dealing with here. Am I worried about being censored for the actual message I put out? Not usually. When I’m being critical of administration or going off about a political topic I really care about, I worry about being censored then and take appropriate measures. I’ll make sure to write out a physical copy before I hit send on the JPay. If it gets censored, I appeal the rejection and send a typed copy via snail mail. It’s frustrating, but not anything I can’t deal with.

Otherwise, they’re not that competent. I am mostly worried about having what I write blocked because of some random event that I possess exactly zero ability to predict, control, or even logically connect to what I’ve written. For example: about a year ago I was worried about being censored because there was a big crackdown going on around thumb-drives in the DOC. Since this here has absolutely nothing to do with thumb-drives, it would be par for the course to be censored in connection to that investigation. With all appeals going to the people that did the censoring in the first place.

There are some routes for getting writing out of the prison that circumvent the mailroom, but when people use those they place volunteer programs at risk of bring shut down.

Here’s an example of what I mean: When I was in Walla Walla I was a charter member of the closed custody Toastmasters club and I shuffled from one position to another of the club’s executive board. We knew the administration were looking for an excuse to shut down the club, so as a part of our regular club business we told our members to not do anything to give the administration an excuse.

Well… Someone who was not part of Toastmasters in the Walla Walla medium custody convinced the recreation director to make a video recording of him talking about how Washington needed to bring back parole. He then got the recreation director to smuggle it out of the prison and send it to his mom. The video was was placed on YouTube. Because the video was of an incarcerated person making a political speech, the administration shut down not just the medium custody Toastmasters, but the minimum custody and closed custody clubs as well.

This is how the WA DOC works. It was a speech. Toastmasters does speeches. They didn’t like Toastmasters. So they shut it down. Nevermind that the guy doing the speech wasn’t in Toastmasters.

This same (il)logic was recently applied to used books. (See Graham, Nathalie. (2019) The Stranger. “Washington Prisoners May No Longer Be Able to Receive Donated Books”. April 1, 2019. O’Sullivan, Joseph. (2019). Seattle Times. Washington corrections officials reverse ban, will allow prisoners to get used books in the mail. April 10, 2019) There’s a whole issue with this story that the journalists missed, but the essential issue is illustrated quite well. The WA DOC overreacts and only backs off from their draconian measures if there is sufficient public backlash.

This is the kind of thing I worry about happening with my writing. Censor me and I’ll find another way to get my words out to the world, which usually involves waiting a couple weeks before simply sending it out again. Repeat as necessary. But what if they use my words as an excuse to censor the voices of others? That’s what keeps me up at night after I’ve sent out a particularly controversial or inflammatory piece, because I have exactly zero ability to stop them if they choose to coopt my words and use them to hurt and silence others.

Granted, one thing that the WA DOC administrators like to do to people who piss them off but, who they can’t technically punish (like writers and legal beagles) is what some call “diesel therapy.” The administrators just keep transferring the person from one prison to the next so that they can never get comfortable, never put down roots, and end up losing most of their property when their ability to pay the shipping costs runs out or it’s “lost” in the mail.

Which is really messed up and not okay.

In summary, as a prison writer and as a writer who happens to be incarcerated I face many barriers to getting my name in print. Some of these barriers are because the WA DOC is opposed to me exercising my first amendment right, others are because of a culture that is not willing to accommodate people in prison writing about things other than prison, and lastly there is the issue of the world having gone digital while incarcerated people are stuck on analog.

Glamorizing these issues or exaggerating what is actually going on only serves to confuse things and make it more difficult for people outside prison to advocate for people in prison to be apart of the common discourse.

I am sentenced to a loss of liberty. I am not sentenced to a loss of voice.


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