Oppose a new policy that punishes incarcerated Maine writers

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We, the undersigned—a national community of writers, writing teachers and concerned Americans—are writing to oppose some of the proposed changes in Maine’s Department of Corrections discipline policy Ch. 10 Subsection 20.01.

Writing is a vital means of expression, of developing critical thinking. It can also be a tool for healing, recovery and personal growth: PEN America Center’s Prison Writing Program, founded in 1971, is predicated on the notion of the “restorative, rehabilitative power of writing.”

American 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, and “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau, about his arrest and imprisonment. 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, as per the new News Media policy, which disallows prisoners from publishing, posting or offering any news of their lives or situations, “directly or indirectly.”

Furthermore, the new Pen Pal 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 is healthy. As social justice journalist Maya Schwenar writes, “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? 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? How will we know that if prisoners are punished for telling us? We pride ourselves on Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press in this country. When we hear of novelists and poets being jailed in other countries for their political work, we as Americans are rightly horrified. We don’t want to follow in the footsteps of fascist and fundamentalist governments in Maine. By denying these rights to the Americans in prison, we are severely undercutting the liberties of all.

Rather than 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 Maine prisoners of their humanity and their self-expression. These are the tools which keep them sane, productive and on the right path. We urge the state of Maine not to implement these policy changes.




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