I moved my family to Maine several years ago largely because I see it as a place where humane treatment of all beings is a shared value. I’m appalled to think our state’s prison system might adopt unjust and detrimental policies that would greatly restrict inmates’ communications with the outside world.
I am a poet and a professor of literature and writing. I have taught in colleges and other settings for many years. I’ve had the opportunity to teach through the University College-Rockland program in the Maine State Prison, and I have taught creative writing as a volunteer to the women at the Southern Maine Re-entry Center. At both facilities, my students were bright and thoughtful, making enormous effort to change their lives for the better. One of the ways they were doing that was through education — specifically, writing. They universally reported that writing is a deeply nourishing, helpful, constructive activity for them.
Any English professor will tell you that writing is a vital means of expression, of developing critical thinking, of learning. And many argue writing also can be a tool for healing, recovery and personal growth: The 90-year old PEN America Center works “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” Founded in 1971, its Prison Writing Program “believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing” and actively encourages and helps prisoners to write and publish their work.
My own fifth-grade daughter and children around our nation read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a landmark essay on civil rights written on scraps of paper while King was incarcerated. Schools teach “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau about his own arrest and imprisonment. When I taught literature in the prison, we read from Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” written while Cleaver was in Folsom State Prison in California. These are considered vital American texts, groundbreaking treatises from the front lines of American politics and society and excellent pieces of thinking in writing. So it seems incredibly unwise — and un-American — to change the disciplinary policy in the Maine prisons to prevent and punish prisoners for writing for publication. The new News Media policy disallows prisoners from publishing, posting or offering any news of their lives or situations, “directly or indirectly.”
Furthermore, the new policy that makes it a Class B offense to write to anyone on the outside — to “solicit a pen pal or communicate with a pen pal” — is downright inhumane. Being able to have some contact with the outside world, the chance to communicate with another soul through writing, is healthy. As social justice journalist Maya Schwenar writes, “My conversations, correspondences, and relationships with prison-torn families have taught me that separation breeds more separation, that the coldness and isolation of prison breed the coldness and isolation of violence. [Whereas] letters between pen pals are almost always exchanged for the … purpose … of connection.”
Aren’t we trying to make a more connected, empathic, articulate population? A more aware, better educated citizenry? Aren’t we trying to help prisoners rejoin society in positive ways once they are out? And don’t we want to know what goes on for those living inside our jails and prisons? Isn’t it our right as Americans to know how our justice systems are working? How will we know that if prisoners are not allowed to tell us?
We pride ourselves on freedom of speech in this country and on freedom of the press. When we hear of novelists and poets being jailed in other countries for their political work, we as Americans are horrified — and rightly so. So why would we want to follow in the footsteps of fascist and fundamentalist governments here in Maine? Aren’t we a democracy? By denying these rights to Americans in prison, we are severely undercutting the liberties of all.
Instead of punish prisoners for writing about their experiences, let’s continue to encourage them to do so, as so many national and local programs do all over the country and have done for decades. Please, let’s not further strip our prisoners of their humanity and their self-expression. These are the tools that keep them sane, productive and on the right path. I urge the state of Maine not to implement these policy changes.
Arielle Greenberg Bywater is a poet and author of creative nonfiction who lives in Belfast.