While serving a typical day during my 23rd year in prison, I reflected on the relationship publishing had on my preparations for success. In section 12 of Prison! My 8,344th Day, I offer guidance that other people in jail and prison may use to prepare.
Prison! My 8344th Day—Section 12—Publishing
It’s 12:45 in the afternoon. Three people join me in the quiet room to work on their independent study programs. Since they’re reading aloud, the room is no longer peaceful. I wake early each morning for the alone time, but it would be unreasonable to expect the room to stay silent during mid-day hours. Earplugs won’t block their conversation.
The three men work through an independent-study project, suggesting that they’re using time wisely. They’re trying to become more knowledgeable about the price movements for commodities. Using financial pages of business newspapers, they track commodities like sugar, coffee, grain, pork bellies, etc. With graph paper, the men create their charts. The results show whether they would have gained or lost if they had speculated in the markets.
Charting price movements with graph paper and day-old newspapers lack the precision and speed that powerful computers provide, but they’re getting insight into technical analysis. I listen as they discuss support, resistance levels, and volume swings. I try to write, but I’m distracted by their discussions of how their phantom trades and the systems they created would have resulted in gains or losses.
During the years that I’ve served, I’ve heard many people talk about the “systems” they created to earn easy money. The conversations make me more cynical than most. One person told me about a system he created to guarantee a 30% return with sports betting. I learned about a method to win at Blackjack and other card games from another person. Generally, I find it best not to venture unsolicited opinions on what I think about their systems. That way, I can spare myself the inevitable arguments that follow as egos interfere—including mine.
I look at my watch and think of other places I might go for more solitude or a quieter space. It’s almost 1:00 p.m., so I straighten out my writing gear and leave. I’m going to the law library. I stop by the phone area and dial Carole’s number on my way out.
She presses the button to accept my call. At every opportunity, I express my devotion to her. But with the phone limitations, we hardly have any time to talk. During our brief call, Carole told me about a message she received from Joan Petersilia, a law professor at Stanford. Joan has been a mentor to me for longer than a decade. Carole and Joan will meet for coffee in Santa Barbara when Joan returns home.
Much earlier in my prison term, while I worked toward my master’s degree, I read everything about the prison system. Joan wrote prolifically about reentry. When I read about people interested in subjects relating to the career I wanted to build, I wrote them. Through that effort, I added to my support network. Hundreds of people advocated on my behalf, and I intended to leverage those relationships once I got out.
Joan and I began corresponding after I wrote her dozens of letters. Recently, she invited me to contribute a chapter to a new book she was authoring called The Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections. She also asked me to speak at Stanford Law School upon my release. I’m enthusiastic about opportunities to strengthen my relationship with her and prove worthy of her sponsorship.
Carole and I discuss what she has been doing since we spoke earlier, and I tell her about my progress on projects I’m working on finishing. When I disconnect the call, I see that we’ve used four minutes of our phone time, falling further behind in our monthly allotment of phone minutes. If we keep up at this rate, we’ll run out of phone minutes before the month ends.
When I push open the housing unit’s door, a wave of desert heat reminds me that we’re quickly getting into summer. I walk across a wide concrete pathway that leads to the library. Up ahead, I see Eric. He’s finishing an 18-month sentence that followed his guilty plea for defrauding investors out of nearly $2 million.
A man I haven’t seen before stands by Eric’s side. He wears blue canvas slip-on shoes—a tell-tale sign that he recently arrived at Taft. Both men observe me as I approach. They’re waiting to talk with me.
Eric tells me that Mark surrendered to the camp last week, and since Mark read through my website before coming in, he wanted an introduction.
We shake hands and converse for a few minutes about his experience. Like many people surrendering to prison, Mark complains that his lawyer failed to prepare him. He didn’t understand the significance of every decision. From writings I published online, he realizes that he could have done more to influence the length of time he served.
Eric told me that he didn’t discover our website until his judge imposed his sentence and authorities designated him to serve the sentence at Taft. By then, he had missed opportunities to prepare. He didn’t know the significance of the presentence-investigation interview or how he could build a mitigation strategy before sentencing. I try to encourage him, helping him understand that it’s never too early or too late to begin preparing for a better outcome.
As I walk away, I’m frustrated at how ineffective I’ve been at designing a website that people could find. The earlier people learn about the system, the more effectively they can prepare. I’ve written and published thousands of articles. Yet without effective marketing, I’m failing to reach the potential market. When I get out, I will have to fix this problem.
I open the door leading into the building that holds the education department. With only a few small rooms for classes, it’s not much of a department. I turn left to walk the corridor leading to the library, passing by a classroom where a dozen men sit at personal computers in a self-study course for Word and Excel application programs. I see a bulletin board with clippings from newspaper articles that have been up for longer than two years.
As I turn into the law library, I see a recent issue of Prison Legal News, a newspaper that publishes judicial decisions related to prisons and sentencing. Paul Wright, the newspaper’s founder, wrote the cover story, providing a history of how he and others served time in the Washington State prison system. The paper celebrated its 20th year of continuous publication, and it has grown to 7,000 subscribers.
I remember seeing one of the first issues of Prison Legal News back in the early 1990s. I got inspired when I read that Paul Wright started the magazine while serving time inside the Washington state prison system.
Over the years, I’ve purchased a subscription to the newspaper a few times. I admire the work of anyone who works tirelessly to improve America’s prison system.
Paul Wright and the group he put together report on judicial decisions and provide content that helps people challenge various aspects of their confinement through judicial filings. My writing offers different information. I want readers to understand the prison system, and I encourage them to adjust in ways that will prepare them for success upon release.
Administrators don’t like it when people in prison write for publication, especially if those writings bring attention to the design flaws of America’s prison system. Although we live in a country founded on democratic principles, the people who run prisons want to keep citizens in the dark about what goes on inside these boundaries. Administrators have often locked me in segregation or uprooted my life with unexpected transfers because I write about what I’ve observed and learned while serving time.
I’m sure that Paul Wright and his colleagues at Prison Legal News paid a personal price with harsher terms of confinement because of their activist efforts to inspire prison reform. He is now a free man, but he continues his work to bring attention to the injustices associated with America’s prison system. Reading about Paul’s contributions inspires me.
As I sit on this hard chair in the library, I look at the thousands of books that surround me. Six typewriters are available for those who want to type documents for the courts. Yet, rules threaten disciplinary action for anyone who uses typewriters for anything other than legal documents.
No one uses the typewriters today. I think of how much more efficient I would be if I could type my articles. Unfortunately, I have a reputation for writing. The warden warned that he’d send me to the hole if he heard that I used the typewriters for anything other than legal work. Since officers monitor all outgoing mail, I wouldn’t be able to send any typewritten work to Carole.
The article I read in Prison Legal News motivates me. I want to write more books for prison libraries. The books sow seeds of hope for people serving time. I’d also like to write more for the web, showing taxpayers why our nation’s commitment to mass incarceration wastes taxpayer resources. For now, I’ll have to continue writing by hand. When I get out, I’ll use technology to increase productivity. By learning more about the internet, I’ll also learn how to market better.
Writing about the prison experience feels like a calling for me. My work won’t bring any relief to my sentence. With more than 8,300 days of prison behind me, I’m looking forward to finishing the final 1,000 days before my release. I’ll use this time to create more literature that will launch my business when I get out.
Since I write about an unpopular subject, I know that my books will never build a broad readership base. Millions of people won’t be interested in my work, but I hope to provide value to people looking for this information.
I’m writing for a purpose, for a cause. Professional writing opportunities began to open while I worked through graduate studies at Hofstra University. Because of my writing, I built relationships with scholars that focused on America’s growing use of prisons. Like Joan Petersilia, many of those scholars authored textbooks for university students. They became mentors and invited me to contribute chapters to their books.
Those relationships led to publishing agreements and growing my support network. Like Paul Wright with Prison Legal News, writing became therapeutic for me. When St. Martin’s Press issued a contract to publish Inside: Life Behind Bars in America, I reached a general non-fiction audience. These efforts led to opportunities that bolstered my confidence and made me feel productive, even while serving decades in prison.
My work contributes to the literature that documents the tragic system of American prisons. I provide readers with a glimpse inside and offer strategies that people can use to get better outcomes. I’ll use all this work to build a career and grow income streams over time. The system may proclaim to prepare people for reentry, but data on recidivism rates show that the longer we expose a person to corrections, the less likely those people will function upon release.
For example, administrators enforce policies that punish people for using typewriters to nurture community support or educate themselves. As our nation moves into a digital age, the system blocks people from learning about technology. But describing the prison experience for taxpayers is only part of my work. I also write to help people avoid behavior that could trap them into problems with the criminal justice system. I sense a market for services I’ll offer when I get out. Besides that, the work gives me a feeling of relevance as I climb through my final 1,000 days.
- In what ways would it help you to grow an influential support network help you?
- How will the work you’re doing today influence your income opportunities upon release?
- What strategies are you using to grow a support network?