National Prison Writing Program Helps Inmates

November 4, 2009 Updated: November 8, 2009

NEW YORK—Jackson Taylor doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. It’s ironic, considering he’s spent the past 20 years at the helm of a highly unusual and potentially controversial program that helps give a voice to men and women in prisons.

Taylor coordinates the PEN Prison Writing Program, which is run through the literary organization PEN American Center in New York City.

“I get a lot out of it because I’m being exposed to an angle of society I don’t see very often,” says Taylor, adding that nobody in his family has ever been incarcerated.

But the lack of personal connection to the circumstances of the people he’s helping didn’t stop him from stepping in to take the helm 20 years ago when the program was in danger of going defunct.

“As a writer, I thought it was important to try and engage with them,” he says.

It’s been a labor of love ever since—as much from a commitment to social responsibility as a devotion to the written word.

Through the Prison Writing Program, incarcerated men and women in 48 states in the United States have the opportunity to express themselves in writing (Alaska and Hawaii are not included due to funding restrictions).

Concern over funding is often a difficult issue to escape. But Taylor and others who work on the Prison Writing Program do what they can to keep it alive, including fundraisers like the upcoming events that will feature famous actors in two benefit readings and receptions in New York and Los Angeles.

“We’ve gone Hollywood,” says Taylor about the fundraisers, laughing. The New York program on Nov. 9 will feature readings by John Turturro, Mary Gaitskill, Patricia Smith, and Eric Bogosian. The Los Angeles event on Dec. 1 will be run in conjunction with the Actor’s Gang, and will also be star-studded.

Based on past similar events, the readings also promise to be somber. “You can’t watch this work [be read aloud] and not be moved,” says Taylor. “There’s a lot of power in these pieces.”

The goal of the program is to provide a place for inmates to express themselves freely with writing, and to “encourage the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

The program sponsors an annual writing contest, publishes a free handbook for prisoners, and provides one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing is promising. It also conducts workshops for former inmates, and advocates for their work to get to the public through literary publications and readings.

Taylor notes, however, that with program mechanisms already in place and just a little additional funding, they could double the number of mentors from 100 to 200 immediately.

And he thinks such increases would make a difference. Taylor thinks there is a social value to the results of the program for both those inside and outside of prisons, but the primary goal is to help those who are imprisoned.

“It’s absolutely to help people on the inside [of prisons],” says Taylor. “If you write something and someone reads it … there’s at least a crack there that somebody cares.”

The program doesn’t always meet with praise, though, as some people express chagrin at providing an avenue for the literary voice of America’s prison population.

“Some people hate what we’re doing,” says Taylor. “I think it’s the idea that the punishment should be as harsh as possible.”

In some cases, he gets close enough to the U.S. prison system to see its inner workings and politics. Last year, on a drive from New York to Florida for the holidays, he tried to pay a visit to Charlie Norman, an accused murderer at Tomoka Correctional Institution in Daytona Beach, Florida. Norman has entered his writing in almost every category of the Prison Writing Program’s annual contest, and won multiple awards and accolades for his work.

Taylor says he simply wanted to pay a fellow writer, who he doesn’t know personally, a visit. Despite his best efforts, Taylor was barred from seeing the man.

“I was on the phone [with the prison] the whole way down [Highway] 95,” he recalls of the failed attempt.

With or without meeting the writers they work with, workers think the Prison Writing Program provides the writers with one valuable tool—a learning guide. A compact, carefully constructed volume—called the “Handbook for Writers in Prison”—can be mailed to prisoners free of charge on request.

Though only 120 pages, the handbook contains dozens of examples and lessons about fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, drama, punctuation, rewriting, and grammar.

More information about the program can be found online at www.pen.org or by calling (212) 334-1660, ext. 117.