criminal justice, prison, reading, writing


A few months ago I encouraged my prison pen pal Dean Faiello to write about the difficulties of being a writer in prison. Correctional officers had just destroyed his typewriter, and he had to go back to writing by hand. We went back and forth for a while, with me editing his piece and making suggestions on what to add and what to leave out. His essay just got published in Lithub.

“As I write this piece, March Madness is taking place. It is 7 am and my fellow prisoners are gathered in the dayroom of the Cayuga Correctional Facility around a flatscreen TV, reliving last night’s basketball game. The final score was tallied eight hours ago, but the men are still fighting for points and disputing calls. Last night, a battle took place on the basketball court and in the dayroom. Men cheered, jeered, shouted and cursed.

“Because it was still too dark in the dorm room to write—on the weekends, the lights don’t come on until 2 pm—I chose the dayroom, a raucous romper room of men watching sports, arguing and playing dominoes by slamming the plastic tiles down onto a Formica table. Here, even chess is a trash-talking contact sport.

“Prisons are not set up to inspire writers; I have few choices of where to put down my piece of paper and write. That’s the whole idea of prison rehabilitation—limit the choices and temptations that daily life offers, and hopefully, men will learn to make the right decisions. But the reality is that many of us simply find a way to get what we want. Prison makes us smarter criminals.”

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Among Murderers, fantasies, gender, prison, writing

Your Love, Locked up

Shortly after receiving a letter from a prisoner I know asking me if I could find him “a wife, not a girlfriend” online, I came across Melody Wilson’s essay Love Behind Bars: Why did a nice girl like me date an inmate? on I have thought and written about the distorted fantasies prisoners conjure in their cells: the ways they imagine the free world, its women, jobs and daily life. I was never quite able to fully understand why some women seek out men behind bars. Why? Adam, one of the men I profiled in my book, said it quite fittingly: “Most women who come into prison with the idea of developing a relationship with a prisoner have problems developing a relationship with men on the outside,” he said. “And that cuts down on the kind of people you come in contact with.” (p.107) For this reason he had decided to stay single while serving three decades behind bars.

When I read Wilson’s essay, the following paragraphs offered additional insight from the perspective of a woman who had dated a prisoner:

The physical boundaries between me and Justin only served to release us from our inhibitions; nothing was off limits. Writing to him freed me. After all, who was he to judge?

Eventually, Wilson’s relationship with Justin fell apart. She explains,

Our relationship went wrong in much the same way other long-distance relationships do: We grew apart. Things that I had always known about him began to bother me more and more. Justin had never graduated high school, and he hoped to keep working in his dad’s tire shop when he was released. I still wanted more than that. I wanted more than he could give me, I realized.

It is interesting that Wilson understands this to have been a phase, and admirable that she outgrew it. She became a writer, and dating an inmate is only one of many interesting narratives that make up her life. Today she likes tigers, books, cooking and travelling, and is training to compete as a figure skater.

institutions, prison, rehabilitation

A World Inverted

I highly recommend reading Leslie Jamison’s essay “Fog Count,” on visiting her pen pal Charlie Engle in a West Virginia prison. Published this month in The Oxford American, the essay ponders America’s baffling prison rules and its vague, yet cruel philosophies of punishment and remorse. What I found most memorable is the way Jamison describes her own struggles with the divergent perspectives of author and subject. Engle and Jamison quite literally live in two separate worlds, and however close Jamison tries to get to Engle’s world, a huge gulf always remains between them. (Even though Engle is housed in one of America’s minimum-security prisons which, generally speaking, treat their inmates—who are often convicted of white-collar crimes—more humane than maximum-security facilities.)

Jamison’s piece struck a chord because in less than two weeks I will visit a pen pal at Attica, America’s most notorious maximum-security prison. While my pen pal, who has been serving time for murder for more than forty years, appears to be looking forward to my visit, I have ambivalent feelings. I still get chills remembering my last prison visit several years ago. How I was absorbed by this inverted world the moment the gates shut behind me. How forgotten, fearful and lonely I suddenly felt. One step and I was completely cut off from the outside world. Not only did prison look different, it also smelled and sounded different. The light situation was like nothing I had experienced on the outside. If it reminded me of anything it was a morgue.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Jamison’s excellent essay (but you should really read the whole thing):

“There were rules about movement and rules about hygiene and rules about possession. Too many possessions could be a fire hazard. You were allowed five books and one photo album. Hobby craft materials had to be disposed of immediately after use. Finished hobby crafts could only be sent to people on your official visitation list. There would be no postal harassment by hobby craft.” Continue reading