Prison officials around the country have wide latitude to restrict prisoners’ freedom of expression, and that affects writers behind bars

Did or did not the prisoner turn into a bird and fly away? That’s what the officials want to know in Matthew Mendoza’s Freedom Feather, a short dialogue-driven work of magical realism. The play was originally censored by the Texas Department of Corrections for the use of the word escape. It’s hard to imagine a single word in a dramatic work constituting a safety risk – especially in a context so exaggeratedly fictional it becomes fantastical. But that was the only articulated official justification.

Freedom Feather garnered second prize standing in PEN America’s 2018 Prison Writing awards, a contest celebrating incarcerated writers, but it almost didn’t make it out of the prison where Mendoza writes from.

For over four decades, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has worked to amplify the voices of writers who reach past physical and technological barriers to share the truths of their lives behind bars. This means we often have to deal with sweeping and opaque restrictions on incarcerated writers’ rights: to write, to receive and send mail, and to express themselves.

We are in the midst of a national prison strike that began on 21 August, spurred in part by the death of seven prisoners during the riots at Lee correctional in South Carolina earlier this year. How widespread the action is cannot be fully determined – access to information from “inside” being relevant in this respect, too – but it has brought a degree of public attention to the prisoners’ issues including in-custody deaths, low wages for prison labor, poor facilities, and a myriad of infringements on even the limited rights afforded to incarcerated persons.

Prison officials around the country have wide latitude to restrict prisoners’ freedom of expression, but restrictions on mail must be rationally related to a legitimate penological interest. Who is qualified to make these decisions, and what can a writer in prison do to call errant judgement into question? Grievances, more often than not, lead to stripped privileges, or worse, punitive isolation. Restrictive practices vary from facility to facility, and the routing of correspondence often appear subject to the whim of that day’s mail clerk.

In our work at PEN America we see the manuscripts exchanged between incarcerated writers and their literary mentors rejected because they are interpreted as third party “pen pal” services, which are not allowed in many prisons. And because we offer modest cash prizes to writers of exceptional merit, entire facilities refuse outgoing or incoming mail regarding our program. The very mention of award and contest redirects a letter back to sender under a broad directive of “no sweepstakes or contests”. The restriction is up for interpretation, and the nuance of writing award is lost to images of lottery tickets and get rich quick schemes.

In the stack of daily mail that arrives on our program desk, we often find evidence of censorship among the requests for Handbooks for Writers in Prison, mentorship correspondences and contest submissions. A writer is inquiring about a submission – has it reached us? They suspect the mailroom has been intercepting their work, again. We’ve read about notebooks raids and long stays in solitary confinement, punishment for exposing a hostile prison reality. Oh, the letter might close, and please be sure only to respond on white lined paper.

A large percentage of the work we receive follows the time-tested advice to “write what you know”. In compelling pieces, the authors lay out the casual abuses endured daily in the prison setting, while managing to elevate the humanity, levity and light that persists. But this type of writing – truth-telling from within prison walls – can be viewed with disfavor by prison officials.

This past year Arthur Longworth, a published novelist and multi-year winner of the Prison Writing Contest, was banned from a prison university program and suspended from his paid job without explanation. The Marshall Project reported Longworth’s story, writing that “the DOC [Department of Corrections] confirmed, Longworth was informed that his outside communication was denied for ‘writing an article with no approval from superintendent’”. Longworth believes the honest depictions of serving extensive time in prison angered officials for painting the facility in an unflattering manner.

We know that education is linked to recidivism rates, and that prison reading and writing programs offer incarcerated people tools that can support reintegration in the outside world upon re-entry.

But beyond that, there is a moral argument against these types of prison censorship. Supreme court justice Thurgood Marshall once wrote: “When prison gates slam behind an inmate he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not close to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor his quest for self-realization conclude. If anything, the need for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.”

When security justifications are applied without reason and authority exploited to censor and punish, the writer is robbed of the small slice of personal agency still afforded in the prison environment. But the rest of society loses out, too. Hearing from the directly affected helps to shape our national understanding of mass incarceration and informs public policy on issues of reform. The trouble with calling for more clear or consistent prison mailroom rules is that the goal might backfire, offering the authorities new and better codified justifications to clamp down on prisoner’s freedom of speech.

The only answer is a move out of the sanctioned opacity that tries to make the people behind walls invisible, and towards transparent and accountable practices that differentiate responsibly between safety and suppression. Prisoners who turn their lived experiences of incarceration into creative expression should be encouraged for their contributions, not further isolated nor punished. For authors in prison, like authors anywhere, the act of writing isn’t enough, alone. Writing holds power precisely because someone is on the other end reading.