(NEW YORK)— A proposed directive from the New York Department of Corrections (NYDOC) would undermine the free expression rights of incarcerated writers by significantly limiting their ability to publish, PEN America said today. 

On May 11, the NYDOC announced Directive 4406, which, if implemented, would prohibit people incarcerated in New York from submitting their work to writing contests unless the Commissioner of New York’s prison system–or someone designated by the Commissioner–gives them individual permission.

In addition, organizations like PEN America would be required to obtain approval from the DOC’s Director of Education to run contests, such as PEN America’s Annual Prison Writing Contest, which has been conducted for the past 50 years. Contest winners could not collect prize money. Instead, that money will be given to the New York State Office of Victim Services, regardless of whether their writing addressed the crimes for which they were convicted.

Directive 4406 includes criteria for censoring creative expression, such as whether the work unfavorably depicts prisons or prison staff. 

Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project, said: “Directive 4406 would essentially freeze PEN America’s ability to publish incarcerated New Yorker’s work, alongside that of similar organizations. Our Prison and Justice Writing Program has worked with incarcerated writers for decades, believing in the right of incarcerated people to express themselves to support the cultivation of literacy, writing craft and creativity for incarcerated people. This new directive would cut off a vital lifeline between incarcerated people and the outside world, one which offers concrete rehabilitative benefits. Unduly limiting free expression serves no justifiable penological interest, and burdening nonprofit organizations that seek to uplift incarcerated creators seems a poor use of NYDOC’s time and effort.” 

Robert Pollock, PEN America’s manager of the Prison and Justice Writing Contest, said: “Directive 4406 is an overly broad, cynical regulation that opens the door to arbitrary enforcement: it only serves to chill the creative expression of incarcerated people in New York State. Given the many barriers to sustained, healthy engagement with the incarcerated community, this rule would serve to deeply damage what links remain,” he said.

PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program— the country’s oldest and longest running prison writing contest —receives thousands of stories, essays, poems, and plays every year from writers behind bars who are eager to establish writing careers and receive mentorship to hone their craft. 

PEN America offers small compensation for winning the contest–runners up receive $25, for example. Yet, each year winners receive nominations for widely known literary prizes. Many incarcerated writers have gotten their start as authors through PEN America. 

PEN America is urging people concerned by the new policy proposal to take action here by writing to Anthony Annucci, Acting Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057