PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award recipient announced
New York, NY, April 5, 2004—PEN American Center has named Barbara Parsons Lane, one of eight incarcerated writers who were sued by the State of Connecticut after contributing to the acclaimed collection Couldn’t Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters, as the recipient of this year’s prestigious PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award. Lane, a victim of domestic abuse incarcerated for killing her husband, remains in prison; her son and daughter will accept the $25,000 prize on her behalf at PEN’s annual Gala on April 20, 2004 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.
Couldn’t Keep It To Myself is a moving anthology of stories and essays by women who participated in a creative writing workshop at York Correctional Institution. Wally Lamb, author of the novels She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True,has led the workshop for almost five years.
In January of 2003, just days before Couldn’t Keep It To Myself was due to be released, the Connecticut Attorney General’s office began summoning the book’s contributors to appear before Superior Court. It was only then that the writers-both those still incarcerated and those who had served their sentences and been released-learned they were being billed, at the rate of approximately $117.00 per day, for the cost of their imprisonment. Because none of the women had written directly about their crimes, this was not a case of a state trying to apply so-called “Son of Sam” laws; rather, the Attorney General argued it was seeking the monies under Connecticut’s vaguely-worded and rarely-applied “Cost of Incarceration” laws on the theory that the state sponsored the writing workshop. The State of Connecticut also sued Harper Collins Publishers for having reserved royalties of approximately $5,600 for each of the women. As one of the longest-serving inmates in the group, Lane received a demand for $339,505.00.
Barbara Parsons Lane entered York Correctional Institution in 1996. She joined Wally Lamb’s prison writing workshop shortly after its inception in 1999, stating that she wanted to write about her life to better understand it. She wrote prolifically and grew quickly as a writer, and in time became a mentor to other workshop participants as well, often helping them type and edit their manuscripts. Her growth within the writing program mirrored her progress as an inmate and a person: in addition to her writing activities, she became one of the leading trainers in York’s innovative program that conditions puppies for service to people with disabilities and helped found a hospice program within the prison for women with AIDS and other terminal diseases.
Nearly a year after they were initiated, the State of Connecticut’s lawsuits against the women and Harper Collins are still pending. Last June, PEN wrote to the Connecticut Attorney General to protest the state’s effort to recover the women’s share of the book proceeds, noting that although the law presumably permits the state to attempt to recover the cost of incarceration from any inmate who earns any income whatsoever, it has been applied extremely selectively: of tens of thousands of men and women who have served terms in Connecticut since the law went into effect, only 15 have been the subject of cost-of-incarceration actions-7 who were targeted following significant financial windfalls, and 8 of the women whose writings appear in Couldn’t Keep It To Myself.“Because these eight women came to the attention of the state through their work,” PEN wrote at the time, “it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they have been targeted for their work-or at least that, intentional or not, they are being penalized for exercising freedom of expression.”
“In honoring Barbara Parsons Lane-and by extension, all of the women who poured their lives and their hearts into Couldn’t Keep It to Myself, only to receive bills for the cost of their incarceration-we are of course underscoring our concern over the State of Connecticut’s actions,” Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems said today in announcing the award. “But we are also honoring Ms. Lane and her colleagues in the York’s writing program for seizing the opportunity that writing presents to reflect on their lives and experiences. For more than 30 years, PEN has been encouraging prison writing programs as an essential part of the process of rehabilitation. Barbara Parsons Lane is an extraordinary example of how lives can be reconstructed in and through writing. We encourage the State of Connecticut to amend its Cost of Incarceration law in a way that encourages, rather than discourages, other men and women from exploring and sharing their stories.”
Wally Lamb, who has worked with Barbara Parsons Lane for more than four years and who nominated her for the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, agreed. “Barbara Lane is living proof that Connecticut has the capacity to rehabilitate, as well as punish, its incarcerated citizens and return them to society as productive individuals with useful skills and greater self-awareness. I urge the Department of Correction to make correction its top priority. As Couldn’t Keep It To Myself contributor Bonnie Foreshaw put it, ‘What I hope is that people will bear in mind that we are human beings first, inmates second.'”
This is the twelfth anniversary of the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, which was established by actor Paul Newman and author A. E. Hotchner to honor a U.S. resident who has fought courageously, despite adversity, to safeguard the First Amendment right to freedom of expression as it applies to the written word. The judges for the 2004 award were acclaimed authors and PEN Trustees Eve Ensler and Grace Paley; Syndicated columnist, novelist, and essayist Stanley Crouch; Dave Horowitz, Executive Director, The Media Coalition; and Lucy Dalglish, Executive Director, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, [email protected]