The Prisoner and the Pen

It was the first weekend in June, and I was sitting on a bench in the yard with Robert Lee Williams, who has long dreadlocks and a face with sharp features, almost too pretty for prison. He used to be a Blood, now he’s looking to be a freelance prison journalist like me. He had recently published his first piece, about losing his friend in prison to a drug overdose, in the Prison Journalism Project. He hung his head, gloomy about the news of the new directive: the New York state prison system, with one stroke of a bureaucratic pen, had instituted an approvals process for creative work — paintings, poetry, feature journalism — so laborious that it would deter the most creative minds in New York prisons.

It had been about a month since, in May 2023, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision surfaced this oddly titled “Creative Arts Projects” directive. When a New York Focus reporter asked me about it, I hadn’t seen the directive, hadn’t known it existed. But apparently, we were now required to send officials our work for approval before submitting it to editors, and even publications were required to ask permission to publish us. There were restrictions, too: no sexual or gang-related materials; any proceeds had to go to a nonprofit for victims; no negative portrayals of “law enforcement officers or DOCCS in a manner which could jeopardize safety or security” allowed; and no depictions of our crimes.

Robert was in prison for stabbing his girlfriend. After a night out in Poughkeepsie, he and his girlfriend were arguing. She stabbed him. He stabbed her. He almost died. She did die, and he was convicted of manslaughter. Last year, Robert transferred to Sullivan Correctional Facility, a maximum security in the Catskills where I live, and he sent a message asking me to come to the yard and meet him. I was by the pull-up bar a few days later when he introduced himself. He’d been in prison about 12 years. He’d read the chapter about me in The Sentences That Create Us, a craft book by PEN America, and it inspired him to want to be a prison writer. I told him I’d work with him if he promised to always be accountable, not only with his commitment to the work but also to account for his crime on the page.

In 2002, I was arrested in Brooklyn for dealing drugs and for murder. I wound up with an aggregate term of 28 years to life. At Attica, I joined a creative writing workshop in which we read from the Best American Essay collections, which pointed me to the magazines where the pieces had originally appeared. My mom subscribed to a bunch of them for me. Even though I had no understanding of the level of craft and art that went into magazine features, I knew that in prison I was surrounded by stories. If I could write, I didn’t see being in Attica as a liability. I saw it as an asset. By 2013, I landed my first piece in The Atlantic, and my freelance prison journalism career began. I went to prison with a ninth-grade education. Today, I’m a contributing editor for Esquire.

Without writing, I don’t know what would have become of me. I take up what’s around me, but I often write about myself and the people I know here. That personal writing can be cathartic but also tricky. How do I render my subject in relation to the issue that he’s trying to overcome and the crime that brought him to prison? Is his crime relevant? What about mine? If I don’t divulge, will the reader trust me? Editors help me see the idea of a piece, frame the narratives; they push and pull the best writing out of me. In successive drafts, I leave much behind: ugly phrases, clunky sentences, rationalizing sentiments. What if I were left to live with those thoughts and never challenged to develop them? Becoming a better writer has helped me become a better human being.

I realize that artistic growth doesn’t always parallel moral growth, but my entry point was convict, murderer. For me, becoming a writer was a way to overcome being a killer, even as I know I’ll never overcome it completely. With the personal parts of my writing, I feel like there’s always more desired, owed. It’s the journalism part — communing and connecting with my subjects, analyzing their actions — that helps me better understand the pain in their lives and in mine, as if we were a damaged team. It’s this kind of writing that helps me develop more of the thing that it seems I’ve always lacked: empathy.

So I understood what he meant when Robert said to me, sitting on the bench, head in his hands, “They’re taking everything from me.”

“Don’t worry about that stupid directive,” I told him, as I pulled out a manuscript of his that I’d littered with red brackets and comments. “Just focus on revising this piece.”

During the twentieth century, as the rehabilitative and prisoners’ rights movements gained momentum, most U.S. penitentiaries had some kind of prison-produced newspaper or magazine. The most famous one, was The Angolite news magazine, in the Louisiana State penitentiary, which was nominated for seven National Magazine Awards. The editor, Wilbert Rideau, won the George Polk Award. By the early nineties, though, with rising crime rates and overstuffed prisons, any programs that incentivized good behavior — furloughs, work release, college classes, conjugal visits — got the ax. So did most prison presses, and those that remained, like the Angolite, operated under censorship by prison administrators. Enter the freelance prison journalist.

We don’t lose our First Amendment rights when we get locked up. This has been the site of legal squabbling for over a hundred years. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that while free speech did extend to people in prison, prison officials could also restrict those rights when they interfered with “legitimate penological objectives.”

By the 1990s, the most famous freelance prison journalist in America was Mumia Abu Jamal. He was locked up in Pennsylvania for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer, Daniel Faulkner. (Jamal is still in prison today and claims his innocence.) He was an activist and journalist before he was arrested. After he received a disciplinary infraction for pursuing the profession of journalism in prison (the Pennsylvania prison system did not allow prisoners to “engage in a business or profession”), he sued in federal court. In 1998, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the directive violated Jamal’s right to free speech: “Although Jamal’s articles, books, and radio commentaries may have generated controversy beyond prison walls, unless they amount to fraud, extortion, or threats to those outside the prison, the valid objectives dwindle.” Eleven other states have similar rules on the books, but after Mumia’s win, it’s a decent bet that administrators in those states would think twice before applying them to journalists inside.

angola prison, louisiana, usa

The Angolite, published out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, is arguably the most famous prison newspaper.

Giles Clarke//Getty Images

When I started getting paid for my writing in prison, people would often ask me about the Son of Sam law, assuming it prevented me from doing the kind of personal journalism I do. If the law’s original intent was still on the books, it would have. But the law’s current iteration no longer limits what a prisoner can publish or whether they can earn money from writing. New York passed the Son of Sam law, after David Berkowitz aka “the Son of Sam”, shot and killed six people in 1977, then sold his life rights. The law required convicted people, and even the accused, to turn over money received from any contracts with publishers for writing about their crimes in magazine articles and books and movies. This was trouble for Simon & Schuster, which bought the story of the life of mafioso Henry Jill Jr., in 1981, which ran afoul of the law. So they sued. In 1991, in Simon & Schuster Inc. v. Members of N.Y State Crimes Victims Bd., the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Son of Sam law was inconsistent with the First Amendment.

The court really had a problem with how the law forbade writers from discussing their crimes — even in the most minimal detail. “Had the Son of Sam law been in effect at the time and place of publication,” the opinion reads, “it would have escrowed payment for such works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which describes crimes committed by the civil rights leader before he became a public figure…”

Truth is, we don’t need the state to create laws to muzzle people in prison from writing stories and profiting from their crimes. The marketplace of ideas will sort all that out. What editor would pay a convict for crude writing about his crime? It’s simply not a story. When I write about my crime, I’m providing context that I am in prison because I did this terrible thing. It’s only natural that the reader would want know what that is and hear me take responsibility for it.

In 2001, the New York state legislature revised the Son of Sam law. The language of the original law prohibiting an accused or convicted person from publishing and mentioning their crimes and making money from the content — all that was removed. The revised law could now seize pretty much any funds that a convicted person received over $10,000, with the exception of earned income. The law doesn’t say prisoners can’t earn money, and I earn mine as a journalist.

Truth is, we don’t need the state to create laws to muzzle people in prison from writing stories and profiting from their crimes. The marketplace of ideas will sort all that out. What editor would pay a convict for crude writing about his crime?

I felt like New York DOCCs’ new directive was trying to reinstate the original Son of Sam law. “As more news outlets publish incarcerated journalists,” Brian Nam-Sonenstein of the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) recently wrote, “more departments will consider policies to control what information makes it out into the world.” While there is “a web of vague policies” that make practicing prison journalism difficult, according to PPI, none of the state penal systems explicitly ban prison journalism. The federal system, administered the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the agency housing the most people in the country, is the only one that does. The rule, which prohibits prisoners from “acting as a reporter,” went on the books back in 1979, when the feds were concerned about influential political prisoners rising to undue prominence. The BOP fear was that a prison journalist could become a “big wheel” or spokesman, and gain too much clout. I wondered, had the BOP ever invoked this rule against a prison journalist?

One day, I strolled from my cell block, walked through a metal detector, and headed down to the law library to see my buddy Mikey Dread, who is swift with the law. He’s been down thirty years and is a clerk with his own desk and a computer with Westlaw. I asked him if he could find anything on the federal ban on journalism, and he did his thing. I soon learned that Dannie M. Martin is often considered to be the last visible freelance prison journalist in the feds. In the late ’80s, Martin’s essays regularly appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Punch Section. His work was edited, but typically, nobody from the Chronicle reached out to the BOP for comment. This became a point of contention when Martin, in 1988, in his infamous “Gulag Mentality” essay, criticized the new warden, R. H. Rison, for agitating the Lompoc prison population. That’s when his troubles began. He quoted one prisoner saying something about the warden that I would have left out: “He’s trying to start a riot. We might just as well give him one and get it over with.”

The BOP invoked their 1979 rule that said a prisoner can’t “act as a reporter or publish under a byline.” They wrote Martin an infraction and put him in solitary. The Chronicle and Martin sued the Bureau of Prisons under the First Amendment: The newspaper’s right to free press and the convict’s right to free speech would be up against the federal prison system’s obligation to maintain security in its facilities.

In his 1990 ruling, the district judge, Charles Legge, gave Martin’s work a glowing review, calling his prose “light, concise, and easily readable,” and “legal writers, scholars, attorneys — and yes, judges — could well imitate his style.” He added, “The writing of published articles could provide a good role model for other prisoners. And such articles, even if critical of the prison system, may provide a nonviolent means to defuse tensions within a prison.” But Legge sided with the BOP on something important: The “Gulag Mentality” article did create a security problem. The regulation stayed on the books.

The Chronicle appealed. Martin kept publishing but the Chronicle didn’t use his name in the byline. By the end of 1991, Martin was released and the appeal became moot: the plaintiff was no longer subject to the regulation in question. “I committed bank robbery and they put me in prison, and that was right,” Martin famously said of the ordeal. “Then I committed journalism and they put me in the hole. And that was wrong.”

Twenty-seven years later, a federal prisoner named Mark Jordan, in the ADX supermax in Colorado, challenged the BOP regulation after he published an essay under his byline in Off! magazine, an obscure university periodical. After he was disciplined under the “no publishing under a byline” and “no acting as a reporter” rule, he sued, and Colorado district Judge Marcia S. Krieger found the “no byline” part of the BOP rule violated the First Amendment. The language was removed from the BOP regulations. Jordan’s writing wasn’t reportage, so the “acting as a reporter” rule remained on the books. Yet Krieger’s opinion made it clear that she found the rule oppressive, and her words proved to be prescient. She wrote in her 2007 decision:

“Arguably, the speech of the more than 198,000 other federal inmates is similarly chilled. The only way for any inmate to be certain to avoid punishment is to not submit an article to the news media for publication…The Court notes that a security risk does not invariably arise because an inmate becomes a ‘big wheel.’ To the contrary, the evidence establishes that prison officials encourage some inmates to become ‘big wheels’ in order to showcase them as positive role models.”

(While I appreciate the judge’s sentiment, I’ve never had a prison official lean into this kind of relationship with me. This bothers me, because I feel like it’s a squandered opportunity. And I have to say, as someone who regularly publishes in high-profile outlets, I find this whole “big wheel” idea to be absurd. As I write this piece right now, my neighbor, who is the head shotcaller of a gang, has guys constantly stopping in front of his cell, paying him homage. Nobody stops by my mine. When I read this excerpt to my neighbor, he laughed. “It’s also that a lot of people just don’t like you,” he told me. “You like kinda famous, and you mad conceited with your shit, so you got a lot of haters. I fuck with you, though, John. You’re my guy.”)

There’s no question readers want to be taken into our world and told a story. The problem is not prison stories or crime stories — the problem is who gets to tell them. I have been a pain in the ass for my jailers with pieces like “Spying on Attica” and “This Place is Crazy,” about abusive guards and people who suffer from serious mental illness in a brutal prison system, on behalf not just of my fellow prisoners, but of you, my readers. Although in the ten years I’ve been a journalist in the joint, I have had not one violent incident, one time, at Sing Sing, a couple guys tried to shake me down, claiming that an article I wrote in Sports Illustrated about gambling brought heat on them. Security swiftly intervened, and I was transferred to Sullivan, where I am today. But I suspect the prisoners I inspire far outnumber the ones I antagonize. The prison writer is not the most dangerous prisoner because of some threat that he’ll become a “big wheel.” He is the most dangerous prisoner because his writing threatens to take back his own narrative, and the narratives of other prisoners, from the tabloids, from prison officials, from the true-crime industrial complex, who love to cast us as villains for entertainment.

The problem is not prison stories or crime stories — the problem is who gets to tell them.

In the past few years, as prison reform has become more popular, philanthropies have been funding the arts in the criminal justice space and there’s been a renaissance of prison writing. Incarcerated freelancers have replaced the prison presses. There’s now a spate of organizations: In 2021, Shaheen Pasha and Yukari Kane launched the Prison Journalism Project; it teaches the basics of good journalism through correspondence and publishes prison writing. In 2020, Emily Nonko and Rahsaan Thomas started Empowerment Avenue to address the logistical hang ups that incarcerated freelance writers face: getting clean drafts from their cells to the inboxes of editors, negotiating payment for their work. EA matches inside writers with outside writers and editors, currently assisting about thirty writers who consistently publish. Thomas was writing stories for the San Quentin News and co-hosting Ear Hustle, a popular podcast that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. But he only made $16 a week. Working with Emily at EA, he started landing pieces in outside publications. When he got out earlier this year, after Gov. Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence, the money he earned freelancing helped him start his new life. PEN America, which has a long-standing focus on publishing incarcerated writers via their Prison and Justice Writing Program, is launching the Incarcerated Writers Bureau this November, which connects individuals and institutions with writers behind the wall via a searchable database and guidance on how to work with incarcerated writers.

All this is helping prison writers break out. Juan Moreno Haines, also in San Quentin in California, has won awards and published in the Los Angeles Times; Christopher Blackwell, in a Washington state prison, has had bylines in the Washington Post and the New York Times; and Joe Garcia, who writes from solitary, just wrote about listening to Taylor Swift for The New Yorker and the piece went viral.

Ryan Moser was a prison journalist in Florida, where they didn’t make it easy for him. “You can publish work but you cannot seek nor accept compensation,” was the deal, Moser told me. Even after being out for months, he remembers the stiff directive language. He still managed to make $10,000 writing in prison — his mother accepted his payments in the form of honorariums —which he used in part to help his son pay for college.

These writers were all in state prisons. Where were the writers in the feds? While the Prison Journalism Project has published nearly 2,000 stories, according to Yukari Kane, only a fraction of the 650 different incarcerated writers were federal prisoners. “It can be challenging to work with them on edits because the [BOP] is so restrictive,” Kane told me.

Of the 21 prisoners who are part of Pen America’s Incarcerated Writers Bureau, none are in federal prison. Of EA’s thirty writers, only one was in the feds. When I called Aaron Kinzer from the yard in July, he had just finished up a thirteen-year stint for drug trafficking and was trying to hustle some of his writing as a freelancer. Home only a couple weeks, he’d landed pieces in Newsweek and the New York Times. While incarcerated, he had written a few essays in PJP and The Marshall Project’s Life Inside section, but he wasn’t aware of the rule that said he couldn’t “act as a reporter.” Then again, he’d never met anyone in the feds who called themselves a prison journalist. “But I wasn’t really writing grievance pieces,” Kinzer told me. “I was writing about how we cope.”

Laws and restrictions against prison writing tend to expose what exactly it is that people on the outside find so uncomfortable about writing from behind the wall. There’s the money, for one thing, and the imagined clout — it would be too much to call it power — for another. As a prison journalist, I always felt I was operating on the right side of the law. But there’s law and then there’s ethics. Back in 2019, I wrote a journalistic personal essay about New York’s apology letter bank, explaining how I came to write my own apology letter to the family of the man I killed. Unlike most of my other work, the whole piece revolved around my crime; it was reflective, not some lurid tale that glamorized my criminal past, but I still felt that it was inappropriate to keep the fee I received for publication. So I donated it to a prison reform nonprofit.

The family never forgave me, and is clear about their distaste for my public persona. It’s a warranted reaction, one I’m not always sure how to handle. If I don’t murder a man and go to prison, do I become a writer? Probably not. I sometimes wonder if I use the agency of my crime in my voice on the page just a tad bit too much. In my earlier pieces, there was a kind of glibness to my description of the murder, as if it should be charged to the drug game, as if him being in the streets made his family love him any less. As if he didn’t have just as much potential as me. Or maybe it’s this. Maybe I shouldn’t be too proud of who I’ve become because it can never truly excuse what I’ve done. Yet where else was I to hash out what I did? Nobody who works for corrections ever asked about my crime. So I worked it out with editors, developed my thoughts into prose and left it on the page for the public.

When I committed murder, it was an affront to society, too. The prosecutor who put me away represented the people. It’s because I keep it real with you all in society that I’m a professional writer in prison. My career is at the mercy of your forbearance. And you can handle the truth. You deserve it. Norman Mailer was speaking for me when he said that the only time one knows the truth is at the point of his pen. Prison journalism illuminates what goes on in these institutions, and much of the writing is of the personal kind; it should help us see through our own murkiness. While many of us use journalism to hold a mirror up to America, there’s no need to get all righteous about it in our writing. Before we on the inside hold the mirror up to you all, surely we must hold it up to ourselves.

On June 6th, the New York Focus story ran and ignited widespread public outrage, and a day later, on June 7th, prison officials rescinded the directive. It was being misinterpreted, a spokesman claimed, and the department would revise it. It’s a relief that those of us locked up in New York can continue publishing and earning income from our work (for now), but I wonder why there’s no public outrage for the thousands of federal prisoners who can’t.

When I saw Robert Lee Williams, my mentee, in the yard a few days later, he’d heard about the directive getting rescinded. I had put a confident face on for Robert in the yard days before, but truthfully, I was fearful, too, that everything I’d worked for could be ripped from me. I’ve always avoided clashing with corrections. I report and write and reflect and publish. That’s the prison journalist’s job. Robert walked towards me with a bounce, smiling, holding his head high. We dapped and hugged and he pulled a typed essay with smudged lettering from his pocket. He’d reworked the piece, plugged in the edits. This was the fifth round. He thought it was ready to pitch to an editor.

“We’ll see,” I said, as we walked over to sit on the bench.

Headshot of John J. Lennon

John J Lennon is a contributing editor at Esquire. He has written for New York, The Atlantic, and The New York Times. He is currently in Sullivan Correctional Facility, in Upstate New York. “This Place Is Crazy,” his story about the treatment of prisoners with mental illness, which ran in our Summer 2018 issue, was nominated for the 2019 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. He will be eligible for parole in 2029. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnJLennon1.

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