Writing a book in prison is difficult. One might think it should be easy since many prisoners have nothing but time on their hands.
When I decided to write my first book in prison, it was because I was prodded by another prisoner.
“You have to write a book,” he urged me, day after day.
I had already been writing for my blog for three years at this point, and I had received positive feedback from readers who told me there was a market for my idea, demystifying prison for the loved ones of prisoners.
I was housed in a prison with a “pole barn” setup, where 180 prisoners are housed with no privacy, which made it challenging to find a quiet place to be creative. Private, quiet places to meditate, study, read or write are rare in prison. So, I trained myself to tune out the noise and focus on my task, and I began to write.
My second major obstacle was the medium with which to write. Prisoners do not have computers they can use to write books. Some prisoners own tablets for email, but unless one writes a book through hundreds of emails, this option is not ideal.
For those who have them, typewriters are an option, but editing without a word processor is difficult. Handwriting has the same drawbacks.
Still, I thought back to the plethora of books that had been written by hand for thousands of years, and I knew that this was an excuse. So, I began to write by hand. Only later did I begin using a typewriter.
The obstacles did not stop there. Editing and digitizing a completed manuscript requires the help of others, preferably those outside of prison.
So does conducting research. I was fortunate to have loved ones outside of prison to help, but others must hire a company that provides these services. However, hiring a service costs money, a resource prisoners often lack, especially if they don’t have outside support.
Even with help, though, it takes tenacity and a thick skin to navigate the steps that follow the actual writing. Since most publishers no longer accept hardcopy manuscripts, digitizing my manuscript was critical.
Finding a publisher willing to take a gamble on one’s book is challenging for any author. Yet, this is further complicated when one is incarcerated. I had a publisher who was interested, but later changed his mind.
Some publishers require authors to have credentials before even considering their work. Such requirements limit the topics publishers will take from prisoners, many of whom entered prison without post-secondary education or professional credibility. Prisoners are often left with only a few subjects about which they can speak with authority: crime, prison and addiction. Sadly, we know these subjects all too well.
Finding an interested publisher was challenging in part because of the letter I had to write, the rejections I received, or worse, encountering publishers who ignored my inquiries.
In the end, I decided to self-publish through Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s print on-demand service. However, utilizing this service required the dedicated help of someone outside of prison. Self-publishing is much easier than it used to be, but it still presents a major challenge for most people. Taking this route may require paying someone who knows what they are doing.
Designing an appealing cover, editing and laying out the manuscript content, creating marketing-worthy descriptions and choosing publishing categories are just a few of the many other hurdles I faced trying to get published from within prison. It can be done, but it takes someone with a hard-working attitude.
Even after publishing the book (should one get this far), marketing one’s book is extremely challenging and heavily dependent on the cooperation and help of others. Prisoners do not have access to social media, and getting the attention of media outlets is made difficult by the public and the media’s perspective on prisoners. Getting word out requires focused creativity and the ability to build networks of relationships from within prison.
Even after persisting through these many obstacles, the largest one remained: Prisoners who author books in prison are often at the whim of prison administrators who want to silence the voices of those on the inside. Although the U.S. Constitution guarantees free speech and the U.S. Supreme Court extended that right to prisoners, with some limitations, some prison administrators ignore the law.
Some prison administrators also refuse to allow prisoners to photocopy their manuscripts, or they stop manuscripts from being mailed out or sent back in.
I had an administrator reject copies of my published book from coming into the prison, citing the prohibition on prisoners operating a business enterprise. Even though I had transferred my publishing rights so I wasn’t profiting from sales, he claimed that simply authoring a book was running a business enterprise.
Writing a book in prison is extremely challenging, but it is also one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. If nothing else, it is an exercise in the patience and persistence I’ll need even after I leave prison.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.