New York Prison System Reverses Policy Restricting Incarcerated Writers And Artists

New York’s prison system reversed a policy on Wednesday that would have effectively blocked incarcerated writers and artists from publishing their work and receiving compensation.

“It is evident that [the policy] is not being interpreted as the Department intended, as it was never our objective to limit free speech or creative endeavors,” the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson Rachel Connors said in an email to HuffPost. “Accordingly, we have rescinded the directive effective immediately. The Department will engage [interested] stakeholders to revise the policy in order to encourage creative art projects, as originally intended.”

The policy was first reported by New York Focus on Tuesday and attracted immediate backlash for its apparent effort to silence incarcerated writers and artists. The policy created a monthslong approval process for the people it imprisons to produce “creative work.”

DOCCS defined “creative work” as including but not limited to “artwork, dramatic composition, music composition, graphic arts/cartooning, film scripts, poetry, short stories, or book manuscripts.” Although the policy directive did not explicitly mention journalism, DOCCS confirmed to New York Focus that the rules applied to features, op-eds and other journalistic work.

“This is going to make prison a black box,” John J. Lennon, a journalist incarcerated in New York’s Sullivan Correctional Facility, told New York Focus.

The policy, which was not posted on the agency’s website until after New York Focus reached out for comment, gave prison officials broad authority to block work from being published for a range of reasons, including any mention of the creator’s crime or any portrayal of DOCCS that could “jeopardize safety or security.” It also prohibited people in prison from receiving payment for their published work. If they did receive compensation, it would have been directed to the state’s victim services agency.

Ahead of DOCCS’ reversal, Empowerment Avenue, a group that helps incarcerated writers and artists place their work in mainstream outlets and venues, began exploring whether the policy violated First Amendment protections, Emily Nonko and Rahsaan Thomas, the group’s co-founders, told HuffPost. Thomas, who was recently released from California’s San Quentin State Prison, was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on the podcast “Ear Hustle.”

“Over the past few years, the level of reporting, storytelling and art inside prisons has been increasingly recognized for shedding light on conditions that the state hides from the public,” Nonko and Thomas said. “We realize the transformative power of the arts to tell the story of prison, spread awareness of the issues that incarcerated people face, bring people together across prison walls, and facilitate the kind of ‘rehabilitation’ that Department of Corrections claim to provide.”

Incarcerated journalists are uniquely positioned to expose misconduct inside prisons. Christopher Blackwell, who is imprisoned in the Washington Corrections Center, recently published a New York Times essay about the dangerous conditions he faced inside a county jail while awaiting a resentencing hearing. (I volunteer with Empowerment Avenue and have helped Blackwell place stories in HuffPost and elsewhere. We teamed up in 2021 on a story about how COVID isolation units in prison are often indistinguishable from punitive solitary confinement cells.)

Jobs in prison often pay pennies per hour, and the cost of communication, food and toiletries is considerably higher than in the free world. Although freelance journalism is typically not a lucrative profession, writing has enabled some incarcerated individuals to better afford to stay in touch with their loved ones and even save up for housing upon their release.

Blackwell is now mentoring other aspiring journalists inside his prison. “Can’t nobody tell our stories better than us,” Darrell Jackson, who is working with Blackwell to publish his first piece, told HuffPost. “Most of the things people hear about prison are bad things about the incarcerated individual versus the good things we do or the horrific things that go on inside of the prison.”

“I personally feel like if there’s nothing to hide, there should be no reason why individuals who are incarcerated should not be allowed the opportunity to express what’s going on.”