Patricia Prewitt's “Contraband” won first place in memoir in the 2006 Prison Writing Contest.
QUESTION: What was the spark that made you begin writing in prison? When did it occur?
PATRICIA PREWITT: When I was sent to prison in April of 1986, my five children were ages eight to 16. As soon as I was allowed to purchase paper and pen, I began writing poems and stories as a means to communicate with them—and as an outlet of my love to them. Collect phone calls are expensive, and visits are short and not private; therefore, I suppose the writing “spark” was separation from my dear family. In my free life, I owned and operated a lumberyard/hardware store, ran a small farm, and ran kids all over creation to rehearsals, meetings, games, lessons, etc., which left me with no time to creatively put pen to paper.
Q: Can you say what authors influenced you? Do you gain benefit from studying their work, or do you feel that your influences come from a different place?
PREWITT: I was raised in the loving arms of a huge extended family on a ranch east of Kansas City. In the 50’s TV was a mere novelty, and my paternal grandparents, both University of Missouri alumnae, owned a huge collection of books—a room full. I cut my teeth on the classics, but also found a stash of trashy Frank G. Slaughter novels hidden in the attic. So it’s difficult for me to point to any one particular influence.
My paternal great grandmother, a retired literature professor, babysat my brother, sister and me often and had us acting Shakespearean scenes as a way to manage us. It wasn’t until I reached high school that I realized she didn’t make this stuff up.
I grew up with three special girlfriends. Two are professional writers and one is a corporate attorney. I’m sure our dedicated teachers had something to do with this outcome, although they cannot be blamed for my bad end!
Q: What have you learned from writing?
PREWITT: I have learned that when I feel the most helpless, I am not. As long as I can report, I have power. I have raised my children with words of encouragement and love. I have made changes in the public perceptions of prisoners with words. My words have changed rules, policies, and laws. Words can console, shock, teach, persuade, touch, hurt, move, enlighten, lift, guide, and change us all. It is a pleasure and a privilege to choose my words carefully.
Q: Describe your process of writing in prison. What philosophies and thoughts help sustain your drive to write? Are you able to share your work with anyone? What are the most challenging aspects of creating in prison?
PREWITT: Everything good in prison is a challenge. For example, a few years ago I mailed a copy of a huge manuscript to a friend-of-a-friend editor/author for his opinion. (Copies were ten cents per page—not to mention postage.) He graciously red-penciled pages with suggestions but, by prison mail policy, could not mail it back to me in the three big clasp envelopes in which I’d sent it out. We are allowed to receive only five enclosures in one envelope—that means five pieces of paper that are not “letter”. Sending the edited book back to me became a long, drawn-out, expensive ordeal. In the end, he sent me only the pages that held comments, to save postage.
Prisons are extremely noisy day and night. Heavy doors slam. Loud speakers squawk. Overcrowded women holler over the din. Concentration skills are acquired. I can now tune out whole riots if I’m really into my work. Mothering five active children, while running a home, business, and going to college, was a good start at becoming a professional blocker-outer.
I write to vent, to inform, to rectify wrongs, to entertain, so I share my writings with anyone who’s interested—and sometimes even when they’re not. Also, if anyone, staff or inmate, needs and important letter, grievance, or proposal designed, I’m their gal. In the Land of Illiteracy, my communication skills keep me busy. Recently I penned a piece of state legislation that was actually passed and will free four deserving women who were prevented from presenting evidence of spousal abuse at their murder trials.
Q: Do you feel that writing has become a permanent and necessary feature in your life?
PREWITT: As long as laws need to be created or changed, injustices plague our prison, daily life gives me stories to tell, my scrawny hands can grip a pen, and I have breath in my aging body, I will write.
Q: Do you have access to a library? What books are there?
PREWITT: Because of my long-houred work schedule, prison overcrowding, and the limited library hours, I rarely get to hang out in the library anymore. I am fortunate to be a member of Prison Performing Arts, our “Theatre Class.” Our instructor, Agnes Wilcox, brings in literature, poems, quotes, books, postcards, and all sorts of stimulating information. Not only do we perform plays, like Macbeth, Crowns, and Midsummer Night’s Dream, we write and perform our own poetry.
Fortunately friends often run to me, “You’ve GOT to read this book! Right now!” So I get a novel without the library hassle. Our librarians are dedicated to offering a variety of books for our wide variety of needs, reading skills, and interests, and they sweetly honor sincere requests.
Q: Are you able to read and study in prison, or are there major obstacles preventing this?
PREWITT: Like I said before, noise is a concentration deterrent. Also many staff members seem to disapprove of inmates gaining education. Our study guides and papers are lost in shake-downs, or we are harassed trying to even get to class. Recently two folders of information in regard to a Personal Training course I’m taking were lost in a cell search. All we can do is grin and bear it. Persevere!
I’d love to take correspondence courses, but they are expensive. Some of my friends are taking college course through the mail—but getting their textbooks in, taking proctored tests, and mailing the books back out have proved to be a struggle for every course. Few tackle such a mountain of problems even if they can afford the tuition, book fees, and postage.
My prison job, for the last 12 years, is writing computer software for the Department of Corrections on the IBM AS/400. In prison terms, I’m well paid, that skill has allowed me to purchase a typewriter, expensive ribbons, and paper. Base pay for most inmates in Missouri is $8.50 a month if you have your GED, $7.50 if not. Basic hygiene needs are not met on such a stipend. Those girls can hardly afford the luxury of a paper of paper and pen.
Q: Do you believe there is a certain type of responsibility for writers who have some connection with incarceration? Do you have themes that you return to?
PREWITT: I only write the truth. I have no need to embellish. The truth is awful enough. I feel a responsibility to report not only what happens but how we feel about what happens. My stories and poems are simply about my life in prison. I guess that’s my theme, since it’s what I know. But I leave certain subjects alone, at least for the time being, because of the risk involved. If I reported certain taboo happenings, I would live in jeopardy. In other words, I would get slammed in the hole under investigation for many many months. “Cuffed and stuffed.” Until I’m free, I must edit what I report. But if I ever get out of here, Katie bar the door!
Q: Feel free to share anything about your work that is not reflected in the preceding questions and answers.
PREWITT: Thank PEN American Center and all the dedicated involved individuals who have created an outlet for incarcerated writers. Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world . . .” You obviously live by that mantra. Thank you for the opportunity to share myself with an ever-widening circle of friends.