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Four Letter Words: Learning How to Write from a Federal Prison

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While walking on my prison’s recreation yard yesterday, a man approached me. He was a casual acquaintance and had questions about how to seek a publisher for a graphic novel that he’s been working on. Since I do a lot of writing for prison-related outlets (e.g., prisoneducation.com and prisonlawblog.com), and used to teach a class on writing here at FCI Petersburg, I have lots of such discussions, even with complete strangers. While I didn’t know much about publishing graphic novels, I agreed to look into the matter for the man and try to help guide him along in his path as an incarcerated writer. It reminded me of when I first started writing from my prison cell.

oregon.govAs Americans, we are very used to having information at our fingertips. Have a question? Simply power on your laptop and Google it. It really is that simple. Don’t have a computer handy? You could always pick up your cell phone and call someone to point you in the right direction or use your car’s GPS to direct you to your nearest public library. But what if the library had few books (and almost all of which were trashy fiction)? What if you didn’t have a car, or a cell phone, or even a computer? What would you do to find the answer to a fairly simple question like how to publish a novel?

When I first started writing, I didn’t have any of the answers. I didn’t have access to a computer, a cell phone, a public library, or anyone to turn to who could answer these questions. But what I did have were these book catalogs that would come in the mail. Thank God for the periodic Reference section, which held many treasures — books on how to write and get published. It was these books that laid the foundation for my life as an incarcerated writer.

As time went on I found that others had many of the same questions that I had. So I started sharing my books and knowledge with others through the vehicle of an Adult Continuing Education class in my prison’s Education Department. The title of the 12-week course was “Writing and Publishing.” Sadly, I think I knew more about the promotion of writing than the art or technique of it. But teaching does help to learn, and that’s what I did.

The more I taught the more I learned. And the more I wrote, the better I became. Eventually, small doors started to open (e.g., small prison monthlies or quarterlies like “Innocence Denied” and “Graterfriends”). Then larger ones like “Prison Legal News.” After some time, I connected with someone outside of prison who helped to open my publication realm to the Internet, where endless publication opportunities sat waiting — all of which with unlimited space to publish good writing. He also was able to find the answers to new questions that would periodically arise.

Now that I look back on my journey, I see that I probably needed to work hard at learning how to write successfully for the true message of hard work to be imparted on me. By working hard, having a bit of luck, and persevering, I was able to succeed at a goal of mine (having a poem published in The Prison Journal), then another (publishing a real article in Innocence Denied), then another (becoming a contributing writer at Prison Legal News), and more — the publication of my first book, Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), and contracts for my next two: College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). Through hard work, all of this was possible, even from behind prison bars.

But this story is tinged with sadness. Regardless of my hard work, the same obstacles still lie in the way of other incarcerated writers. While I always donate my old writing books to the library here at FCI Petersburg, they never seem to make it onto the shelves — perhaps due to either theft or them not being stocked in the first place. While I will advise anyone who walks up with a question about writing, persistent rumors of prisoners not being allowed to publish articles or books from prison continue to tie potential writer’s hands even before the first word has been written. And while there is a new “Creative Writing” class, it teaches participants how to sing rap songs, not write or seek the publication of their writing. All of this leaves me frustrated. It feels as if not only is the prison administration holding us back by not providing us with the tools required to succeed as writers (and citizens, for that matter), but we as prisoners are holding ourselves back, too.

As with everything in America’s broken criminal justice system, there are no easy answers. But, in this case, there is an easily identifiable problem: as long as there remains a culture of do-nothingness and failure, those subjected to terms of incarceration will never succeed at anything except returning to a life of crime and, eventually, a prison cell. This is a sad social commentary, but one that is true, as evidenced by recidivism’s revolving door.

If we as Americans want prisoners to succeed at something pro-social whether it be writing, learning, or not returning to a life of crime, we have to provide them with the tools to do so. And this means educational classes, vocational training, and rehabilitative programming. Until these are furnished and ingrained into the prison culture, real change will never occur. And the consequences of such are plainly catastrophic to our nation’s society and economy. The time for change is now. Forget about coddling prisoners or giving tools to the seemingly undeserving and start thinking about fixing people. That is the only way.

 

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About Christopher Zoukis

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Education Behind Bars (Sunbury Press, 2012), the Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2014), and the forthcoming College for Convicts (McFarland and Company, 2015) and United Blood Nation: The Story of the East Coast Bloods (Headpress, 2015). He can be found online at Prisoneducation.com, Prisonlawblog.com, and christopherzoukis.com.
  • Zelda50

    Write a blog here about the court cases and rules/laws about federal inmates publishing that could be printed out and sent inside the prisons, so inmates can be informed and not base their decisions on rumors. Also – I suggest you not donate your writing books to the prison library – just pass them onto other inmates and urge them to pass them on.

  • janmch

    Hey, Christopher! Glad to see you’re still at it! I lost track of you for awhile.