Collage of various images: Etheridge Knight, illustration of the New York City skyline, Attica Prison Uprising, “PEN America Prison and Justice Writing” overlaid on a manila envelope with stamps, an illustration of a book, a butterfly and from mail, and an illustration of prison bars

Tell the NY Dept. of Corrections: Defend the Free Expression of Incarcerated People

A new Directive from the New York Department of Corrections (NYDOC) would significantly limit the ability of incarcerated writers to publish their work and undermine their free expression rights.

On May 11, 2023, the NYDOC announced Directive 4406, which will begin to require nonprofit organizations and the incarcerated people they work with to ask the state Commissioner of Prisons to approve all programs, contests and contest submissions. Directive 4406 includes criteria for censoring creative expression that include whether the work unfavorably depicts prisons or prison staff.

This NYDOC directive, if implemented, prohibits people incarcerated in New York from submitting their work to writing contents 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 Director of Education at DOC’s Central Office to run contests, such as PEN America’s Annual Prison Writing Contest, which PEN America has been conducting for the past 50 years. Winners of any such contest would not be allowed to receive any 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.

Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project, said: “Directive 4406, if implemented, 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 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.”

“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,” said Robert Pollock, PEN America’s manager of the annual Prison and Justice Writing Contest. “Given the many barriers to sustained, healthy engagement with the incarcerated community, this rule would serve to deeply damage what links remain,” he said.

Every year, 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 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 urges those concerned to submit an email urging the Governor’s media director and key DOC officials to reject this proposal as unneeded, unwise, and damaging to incarcerated people’s freedom of expression.