Lamb's weekly writing workshop became a great success in that it was virtually the only positive aspect of many of the women's lives at York. At the same time that Lamb was teaching the women the craft of writing, he was also guiding them through the excruciating process of confronting some of their most painful experiences. While Lamb proclaims he's no therapist, he told Steve Kroft of CBS's 60 Minutes that he could see the therapeutic value of writing for the women. After several years of running the workshop, Lamb was so impressed with the quality and emotional force of the women's work that he showed a few of their pieces to his editor at Harper Collins. The idea for a collection of the inmates' autobiographical writing was cemented, and each of the 10 prison writers was to receive $5,600 upon their release for their work in the book Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters, published in 2003.
Instead of the praise, Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, brought a state lawsuit against the women. Blumenthal cited an ambiguous "cost of incarceration" statute allowing the state to charge any inmates who come into money while in prison, or even after their release, for the cost of their own imprisonment. For the York women writers, the figure was $117 per day for every day of their sentence. One inmate had a lien of $913,000 placed against her assets. Tabatha Rowley, one of the contributors who had been released from York faced a hefty penalty, but told Kroft that it seemed like they were trying to make the women feel bad about their accomplishments. "You wrote a book, so what?" she said. "You know, you’re still a criminal."
Lamb's efforts to get the lawsuits against the inmates dropped, through Harper Collins lawyers, came to nothing. He nominated one of the women, Barbara Parsons Lane, for a major award from the literary organization PEN, which recognizes persecuted writers globally. Lane was serving 10 years for manslaughter after she killed her abusive husband, and her work stood out to Lamb as particularly poignant. PEN awarded Lane a $25,000 prize for fighting to ensure the right to self-expression. Days after Lane won the award, the prison suspended the writing class and confiscated all of the computer discs used in the program and cleared all of the material from computer hard drives. It was then that PEN got in touch with 60 Minutes, and only when the prison and state officials began to fear negative publicity that they reversed their approach. Blumenthal dropped the lawsuits against the prison writers and reinstated the program. The Commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Correction denied any knowledge of the confiscation of the computer materials. The state officials involved fell over themselves lauding the writing program in the media.
But the women knew better.
York's writing program may be safe for the time being, but what would have happened to the inmates if they hadn't had the backing of a high-profile author and a prestigious literary organization? The debate over prison reform too often centers on the question of whether prisons should be designed to deter crime or to rehabilitate criminals. In the case of the York women, those who sought to rehabilitate themselves were subject to humiliation and severe oppression at the hands of influential officials who used the prisoners' powerlessness against them. It would serve the United States --a country with the highest number of prisoners of any industrialized country-- to ask the more fundamental question of the worth of any single human being, and the possibility of redemption.
If we don't believe that prisoners have both the right to and the capacity for rehabilitation, as it seemed that the Connecticut officials did not, then the question of prison rehabilitation programs itself is irrelevant. "A prison regime defines the razor edge between power and freedom, authority and autonomy," author Norval Morris wrote. God help the United States if its sense of fairness and authority is to be judged along that edge.
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