Plenty of America’s talented writers published in newspapers and literary journals aren’t your typical authors — in fact, many of them are incarcerated in U.S. prisons.
As a published incarcerated writer myself, I yearn for the connection that writing creates between people, inside and out. In a place that takes so much and gives nothing back, it’s humanizing to be recognized for one’s merit outside the prison walls. But, too often I encounter publications demanding sensational content with shock value about events inside the prison walls.
Nonetheless, I have exposed my darkest experiences in some of those publications — becoming the willing horse who’s saddled the most. I’ve revealed my inner secrets and fears to perfect strangers who didn’t care about my mental well-being. I’ve also glamorized violence in response to editors’ requests. Some only wanted my work if I retold a ruinous war story about prison life. In many cases, it felt like I was cutting my wrists in front of a cheering, voyeuristic audience.
I am thrilled to see so many more publications take interest in my work and the writings of others who are also incarcerated. But extractive editing practices — in which editors request lurid details or sensationalized retellings of traumatic incidents — should not be perpetuated by the publishing industry. Incarcerated writers shouldn’t accept these kinds of assignments either. I understand; it’s difficult to resist. It feels so good to be validated that we compromise ourselves just to be seen.
But sensationalism comes with a cost. It distorts the truth in order to provoke or entertain audiences — all at the expense of our humanity. These types of pieces reinforce stereotypes and pull the conversation away from meaningful and positive changes happening in prisons every day: victim impact classes, restorative justice and education programs, family reconciliations and self-improvement activities of all kinds.
Two years ago, I pitched a story about reading literature in a prison library to a national literary journal. The editor requested I spice up the story, suggesting I depict something dangerous to raise the stakes. I immediately balked. Writing about violence and predatory acts inside prisons only serves to propagate the erroneous notion that incarcerated people are sub-human.
I knew that the editor was trying to sensationalize my lived experience, and I didn’t want to agree to his demand because I had meant for my essay to be a love letter to books. I wanted to write about how the library was my sanctuary. I wasn’t interested in telling a story about getting maced while reading because I got pulled into a fight started by the Latin Kings, a notorious prison gang.
But in the end, I agreed to the editor’s request. I didn’t want to lose the publication. When the piece came out I felt used and taken advantage of.
Another time, I submitted an essay to a magazine about mental health issues inside the criminal justice system. But the editor seemed entirely too eager for graphic details about prison suicide.
I had learned my lesson. I didn’t respond.
Some might argue that an editor, however misguided, has the right to ask for specific content. But not to the extent that it warps the truth or accuracy of a writer’s experience, or excessively distracts from the story he is trying to tell. If emotionally devastating trauma and physical aggression are in the foreground of every work by an incarcerated writer, then how will society ever change its view of us as uncivilized criminals and instead begin to see us as fellow human beings, with hopes and dreams and compassion for others?
When editors ask us to incorporate violence and criminality into our pieces, they are asking for something that hurts us directly. Whether it’s by making us relive a horrible trauma or memory, or reinforcing labels of prisoner aggression, the result is the diminishing of our humanity.
Writing is a productive pastime for many prisoners. Prison writing workshops can be a place of self-healing, allowing people to express themselves through the written word in ways that are cathartic and safe. They are positive spaces where we can accept responsibility for our mistakes or confront haunted pasts. It also creates a connection to literacy, thereby allowing for personal growth. It can move people to lift up ideas.
Some publications, including Prison Journalism Project, Empowerment Avenue and The Marshall Project, among others, understand this. They have allowed us to have a purpose beyond shocking the reader. These outlets foster awareness about the criminal justice system. And, importantly, they discourage carceral voyeurism.
As a contributing writer to the Prison Journalism Project, I’ve been given a safe space to showcase the details of prison life without having my experiences exploited. They help produce award-winning journalism and train future journalists in telling serious stories that matter, that make a difference to the world outside.
Prison journalists are trained to avoid sensationalism and focus on the sober facts. They improve the public’s understanding by telling the whole story of incarcerated life, which means also sharing positive insights from inside. And this can help change the way people on the outside think about us.
Editors should be mindful of these dynamics, and should help empower prison journalists and other incarcerated writers to become a more meaningful part of the conversation, rather than just witnesses to events. Don’t just talk about diversity, but act on it by offering more opportunities that allow us to genuinely tell stories that run counter to stereotypes. Educate editors on the do’s and don’ts of working with us.
But, most of all, treat us fairly, with the same respect that you give any professional journalist.
This article was published in partnership with Prison Journalism Project.