Both Prisons and the Public Rely On Incarcerated Writers

The American flag behind barbed wire and a fence. Photo from Pixabay from June 16, 2014.

By Patrick Irving / Prison Journalism Project

Last year, New York’s corrections department ordered artists and writers in custody to provide their work for review before circulating it publicly.

New York Focus reporter Chris Gelardi wrote that the directive established “a stringent, months-long approval process for people in its custody to publish creative work, including books, art, music, poetry, film scripts, and other writing.”

It also provided prison superintendents with broad authority to censor any work that mentioned the artist’s or author’s crime or portrayed the agency in a manner that could threaten operations, according to Gelardi. 

The new rules would have severely limited incarcerated artists and writers from publicly presenting their work and from being paid for it. As the news reached my Idaho prison, I worried that my state’s corrections department would be one of many to follow suit, inhibiting me and others from sharing our experiences inside with the public.

Critics, including educational and cultural organizations that work with incarcerated artists and writers, said the policy would have done more to increase risk to the public than reduce it. “If they have the aim of rehabilitation, it seems antithetical to limit creative arts,” Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s FreeWrite Project, told The Nation. (Disclosure: I am a member of PEN America’s forthcoming Incarcerated Writers Bureau.)

In response to public outcry, opposition, the state corrections department agency quickly canceled the order

Few people witness daily operations within U.S. jails and prisons. Incarcerated artists and writers play an integral part in keeping the public informed. Publications like Prison Legal News rely on incarcerated writers to report on pivotal civil cases and government malfeasance. Contributors to Prison Journalism Project have written about the challengesand accomplishments that corrections communities experience together. And I publish a monthly prison newsletter, First Amend This!, about issues affecting the Idaho prison system.

Our work isn’t as dangerous as New York’s corrections department would have you believe.

Academics, policymakers, voters and crime victims depend on voices inside to understand what goes on behind prison walls, including how rehabilitative programs work (or don’t), the effects of long-term isolation, or the role of the prison environment in addiction recovery. The individuals best suited to collect and convey this information are those who are actually incarcerated.

But tapping them as a resource requires creative thinking. Even the most thoughtful, observant and determined prisoners sometimes struggle to articulate their thoughts and emotions — as everyone does. The physical and emotional traumas that many people carry into incarceration require informed support to process and unpack. And in the carceral environment, where trust must be closely guarded, few residents are eager to share intimate details from their lives that could be used against them.

Art and writing are mediums most can learn to trust and control. Each blank page or canvas is a sandbox that invites creative expression at a safe pace. And the organizations that offer creative outlets to incarcerated populations train their teams to take a trauma-informed approach to their work, with the goal of fostering a nurturing, even rehabilitative, environment.

A partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council, another state agency, found that its visual, literary, performing and folk art classes provided beneficial outcomes, according to a 2021 review.

The classes, provided by two dozen organizations, resulted in positive gains in participants’ mental health, familial relationships, aspirations and long-term life skills. The report also found the connections they formed with art communities further aided their success upon being released.

In addition to the state-funded programs in the review, hundreds more have been introduced into California corrections facilities through the assistance of volunteers, universities and other organizations.

Those who help publish and exhibit participants’ artistic work open the door for them to connect with additional support through the greater community.

In a New York Times article, Brant Choate, California’s director of rehabilitative programs, credited prison arts programs with creating “neutral zones” that transcend race or gang affiliation, allowing for growth. I attest that these programs give us a rare opportunity to safely congregate, away from the abundant stressors of prison. It’s within these safe spaces that participants who may lack access to cognitive development training are able to diversify their interpersonal skills by crossing social and cultural lines. They also develop relationships that will continue providing returns long past their release.

As a writer whose talent continues to develop despite incarceration, I am grateful for the self-discipline, accountability and creative thinking inherent in writing. The creative support I continue to receive through writing programs, including Prison Journalism Project, allows me to pay it forward in my own community and collaborate with fellow incarcerated writers and artists to confront and improve the challenges we face inside.

The U.S. prison system spends an exorbitant amount of money warehousing humans. But it largely fails to increase the skills and abilities of those who are eager to apply themselves. While New York’s efforts to improve safety may be well intentioned, obstructing community organizations from investing in the system and supporting the lives of incarcerated people doesn’t help. Nor does eroding safe, creative spaces where those inside can process — and take shelter from — the chaotic, combative environment that defines prison life.

Please share this story and help us grow our network!

Patrick Irving

Patrick Irving, a writer incarcerated in Idaho, is the author of the newsletter First Amend This. He is a contributor to the Prison Journalism Project‌, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Idaho Law Review, The Harbinger and


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