New York State Tries to Restrict Prison Access to Books; PEN America’s Annual Prison Writing Contest; Prison Foundation Publishes Books of Inmates and Returning Citizens

Partial View of Gowanda Correctional Facility with Power Plant in Background at Left, September 1996


Efforts to restrict inmates’ access to books in New York State prisons reveal a troubling disregard for inmates’ right to read and appear to have no reasonable basis, PEN America announced on Monday.

In New York State, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Directive 4911A, put in place December 4, 2017, restricts prisoners’ ability to receive packages and articles: packages must be sent from a list of approved vendors, or face possible rejection. As of January 8, only six vendors are approved to send books. As a result, Directive 4911A prevents inmates from being sent books—including used books or books unavailable through purchase in any catalog—outside of these vendors’ limited lists.

Currently, the Directive is a pilot program, and applies only to three correctional facilities: Greene, Green Haven, and Taconic, with the possibility that the Directive will later be applied to all state facilities.

While this Directive does not restrict access to prison library facilities, NYC Books Through Bars has noted in a January 3 letter to Governor Cuomo that they have received requests for books from prison employees who are “struggling to stock libraries for the general population.”

“The State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision needs to promote moral and responsible prison policies that uphold inmates’ access to information and safeguard the right to read,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America Senior Director of Free Expression Programs. “Directive 4911A, a ruinously over-broad restriction on inmates’ ability to access published materials, goes in the opposite direction. We encourage the Department and the Governor’s office to revoke this ill-considered directive, and to ensure inmates have access to as much outside publications as possible.”


PEN’S ANNUAL PRISON WRITING CONTEST

PEN America Center’s annual writing contest is open to anyone incarcerated in a federal, state or county prison in the year prior to September 1, the annual deadline for poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction. No submission fees. Cash award for first, second and third place. Details HERE.

Link HERE to read the winning manuscripts from the 2017 contest.

PEN America has run a national prison writing program for over forty years, including the above referrenced contest.

“Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

The program includes a free Handbook for Writers in Prison and a Mentoring Program.


PRISONS FOUNDATION

Prisons Foundation, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit, “seeks a more creative and fulfilling world for both incarcerated and free citizens.”

Manuscript Submission Guidelines All books by prisoners and returning citizens and those who write about them and books by all citizens who donate are welcome for publication.Click Here for further information and submission guidelines for inmates.


Photo credit: Gawanda photograph courtesy of Daniellagreen under CC BY-SA 3.0 license; NY Correctional State Services logo is public domain.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. PEN champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.


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“Soulmates” author, Kenchana Ugbabe, to serve as Writer at Risk in Residence at Fordham University

Kanchana Ugbabe (photo courtesy of and (c) Penguin India


The Fordham Department of English has welcomed a new colleague, Kanchana Ugbabe of Nigeria, to serve in the newly created position of Writer at Risk in Residence for one year beginning this fall.

The pilot position was made possible through the efforts of the Creative Writing program in partnership with PEN America, Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), Westbeth Artists Housing, ArtistsSafety.net, and Residency Unlimited. The residency is the second effort of the New York City Safe Haven Prototype, a multi-organizational artist residency program designed to house, integrate, and nurture artists at risk.

Ugbabe is a professor of English and African Literature at the University of Jos, Nigeria, and the author of a collection of short stories, Soulmates (Penguin Books, 2011). She has edited two collections of essays on the writings of the Nigerian novelist Chukwuemeka Ike and contributed three chapters to the Dictionary of Literary Biography focusing on African writers. Ugbabe holds a doctorate from Flinders University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia. She holds a master’s in English literature from the University of Madras, India.

Since arriving at Fordham in mid-October, Ugbabe has been visiting English classes as well as courses in other departments, such as “Women and Independence in Africa,” taught by Fawzia Mustafa, Ph.D., professor of African and African-American studies and English. This spring, Ugbabe will teach her own class, “Creating Dangerously: Writing from Contact Zones.”

Over the last decade, the political crisis over ‘indigene’ rights and political representation in Ugbabe’s home city of Jos has developed into a protracted communal conflict affecting most parts of the area.

As a writer and South Asian woman settled in an increasingly unstable part of Nigeria, the risks and uncertainty became personal, Ugbabe says. These risks weighing upon her became intrinsically associated with a place she considered home—the town of Jos, which in the early days was a quaint, attractive outpost but has now devolved into a deeply fractured, overpopulated town rife with ethno-religious conflict. Ugbabe and her family, along with Nigerian friends, colleagues, and neighbors, found themselves at the center of the vortex of events. Disruption of work and a climate of insecurity escalated over the years as Jos deteriorated and the town became divided along ethnic and religious lines.

An invitation from Harvard University, to serve as Visiting Scholar with the Women and Gender Studies program, enabled Ugbabe to leave Jos and continue her writing and academic work in the peaceful environment of Cambridge, Massachusetts. The period also enabled her to distance herself temporarily from the tumult in Jos and to gain new perspective on the risks faced by fellow writers and academics in her beloved home country, Nigeria. As that fellowship neared its end, the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) reached out to Ugbabe with the new opportunity at Fordham. This year-long pilot position will allow Ugbabe to continue writing and make headway with her research while being part of an enriching, safe, and encouraging community.

Street Scene: Jos, Nigeria The pollution comes from thousands of motorbikes which are the main transport in town. Photo courtesy of Andrew Moore under CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic license

Jos is a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria.

“The city has a population of about 900,000 residents based on the 2006 census. Popularly called ‘J-town’, it is the administrative capital of Plateau State.

“The city is located on the Jos Plateau at an elevation of about 1,238 metres or 4,062 feet high above sea level. During British colonial rule, Jos was an important centre for tin mining. In recent years it has suffered violent religious clashes between its Muslim and Christian populations in 2001, 2008, 2010, and 2011.” MORE

A Decade of Suffering

“In the past decade, more than 3,800 people have been killed in inter-communal violence in Plateau State, including as many as 1,000 in 2001 in Jos and more than 75 Christians and at least 700 Muslims in 2004 in Yelwa, southern Plateau State. In November 2008, two days of inter-communal clashes following local government elections in Jos left at least 700 dead.” MORE

Some of the killings in Jos hit very close to home for Ugbabe. In 2007, a university professor was kidnapped and never found. Around that same time, church members were attacked, a neighbor’s home was set on fire, and a colleague’s daughter was killed in a bomb blast, to name just a few incidents.

RELATED:

This feature is compiled courtesy of Artists at Risk, PEN America,  Human Rights Watch, Fordham University and Wikipedia 

The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) brings together organizations around the world that are committed to defending and promoting artistic freedom of expression, and to ensuring that artists everywhere can live and work without fear.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Human Rights Watch

If you are reading this in an email subscription, you’ll likely have to link through to the site to view this video.

YANG TONGYAN, IMPRISONED CHINESE WRITER and ACTIVIST, DIED WHILE ON MEDICAL PAROLE, his imprisonment a further blow to free expression

Photo from Yang Tongyan’s Facebook Page.

“Yang Tongyan was a peaceful champion of human rights and democracy, who made a huge personal sacrifice to stay true to his principles. The authorities feared the power of his writing and did all they could to silence him.He should never have spent a single day in jail let alone nearly half his life,” Nicholas Bequelin, East Asia Director at Amnesty International.
.

News that Chinese writer and recipient of the 2008 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award Yang Tongyan has passed away, less than four months after the death of Liu Xiaobo under similar circumstances, is a further devastating loss for free expression advocates around the world and a harsh reminder of how critics of the government are treated by Chinese authorities, PEN America announced Tuesday.

According to a contact at the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), Yang Tongyan passed away after being released from Nanjing Prison on medical parole in August 2017 following his diagnosis with an aggressive form of brain cancer. He briefly returned to his home in Siyang, Jiangsu province. Although he was sent to a hospital in Shanghai that specializes in neurological care to have brain surgery, his family were informed that, as he was a “criminal,” he would not be permitted to leave the country for treatment, according to Yang’s sister.

According to Amnesty International, “Yang Tongyan was months away from completing a 12-year prison sentence when he was released on medical parole. His conviction for ‘subversion’ in 2006 was based on his writings in support of political and democratic change in China. He previously served a 10-year prison sentence for criticizing the crackdown on China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement.”

“Yang Tongyan’s death, so soon after that of Liu Xiaobo, is another black mark on the Chinese authorities’ human rights record,” said Karin Karlekar, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs.

Yang, who wrote under the pseudonym Yang Tianshui, was a brilliant writer, literary critic, and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), an organization of leading writers working on free expression issues both inside and outside of China. He was known for his critical writings published on web sites such as Boxun.com and EpochTimes.com. His catalog of literary writing includes poems, short stories, essays, novels, and memos, many of which were written during his time in prison. In May 2006, after a three hour trial that was closed to the public, Yang was sentenced to twelve years’ imprisonment and four years’ deprivation of political rights by the Zhenjiang Intermediate Court in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, on charges of “subversion of state power” for writing dissident articles, and for his political activism. He had suffered from poor health for years, and had served eleven years of his twelve-year sentence before his family’s third request for medical parole was approved.

News of Yang’s death comes less than four months after Nobel Peace Laureate and notable writer Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody from liver cancer. Following Liu’s release from prison, the authorities also denied his wish to travel overseas to access high-quality medical treatment. Since his death and funeral, his widow, poet and painter Liu Xia, has been held at an unknown location and has had no contact with family and friends.

China’s extensive censorship apparatus limits freedom of speech both within and outside its borders. The situation has grown more alarming since President Xi Jinping took office in early 2013, with an increased crackdown on free speech and implementation of additional censorship laws and restrictions on the internet. Lengthy prison sentences have long been used in China to silence dissident voices, and many Chinese writers, journalists, and pro-democracy activists live in fear of censorship, harassment, and incarceration as a result of speaking out about sensitive issues.

*****

This feature is courtesy of Yang Tongyan’s Facebook Page, PEN America and Amnesty International

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Amnesty International is a global movement of over seven million people who, under this umbrella, campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all.

“Only when the last prisoner of conscience has been freed, when the last torture chamber has been closed, when the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reality for the world’s people, will our work be done.” Peter Benenson, Amnesty International Founder

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Poets Speak Out Against Gun Violence … responses to the last Wednesday Writing Prompt

In memory of Teresa Margaret Mahfouz, beloved sister. 


“On his back, Robert must have had time to see something beautiful, and not just the ugliness of a city street at the end of life. Even with the tremendous pain in his badly gutted belly he would have looked up beyond the fire escapes and the windows with their glittery trees and television glows, to the sky about the rooftops. A sky shimmery with the possibilities of death; lights exaggerated, the heavens peeled back- a swirling haze of nebulae and comets – in some distant place, intimations of the new beginning into which he would soon journey.” Oscar Hijuelos, Mr. Ives’ Christmas

The last Wednesday Writing Prompt, Dueling With Words to Stop Gun Violence, November 1,  was the gift of Evelyn Augusto, the poet who initiated an effort with the same name. Details are in that post. Clearly Evelyn’s passion comes out of personal loss and experience and she is not alone in this.  Gun violence – self-directed and other-directed – touches all our lives to one degree or another. In this collection I’ve included my own Girl in a Wooden Box, which was published on this site and elsewhere but bears repeating as a cautionary tale about depression and the abundance of and ease of obtaining guns and ammunition.

Thanks to Evelyn and to Lisa Ashley, Paul Brookes, Sonja Benskin Mesher, Kakahli Das Ghosh, Renee Espriu and Colin Blundell for participating in this prompt and taking a valued stand against gun violence.


His First Gun, A True Story

(For DJ)

His first gun was a .357. He was seven,
sitting in the front seat.
His cousin, Dwayne, 16, was driving.
His 5-year-old brother in the back seat.
It was a drug deal.
New Orleans.

Some guys wanted our stuff.
Dwayne always said,
“Shoot ‘em before you let them rob you.”
Pow, pow, pow!
Dwayne is hit in the head!
Grab the wheel!

Tried to stop the blood.
He stopped breathing.
We all had guns.
We couldn’t take him to the hospital.

We dragged Dwayne into the bushes
beside the canal
and left him there.
Later, we went back.
Only some brown stuff on the leaves.
He was just gone.

The dreams were really bad.
They went on for a long time.

I’ve been doing the negativity for a long time.
I told my mom I’m done with this.
I’m going to give my life to God.
And football.
I can’t be in here any more.
I need to be back in school and training.
I’ve always been good at sports.
My coach said I was a freak, I’ve got a lot of talent.
I can’t get my GPA up in this school in here.
We take stupid classes in here like “life skills.”
What’s that?

My cousin said it was family business,
I needed to do it for the family.
I was like 10,11.
I went to do the deal.
I took out some of the stuff,
showed it to the guys.
They wanted to see it all.
I told them only after I got the money.
They told me to get in the car.
They started to grab me.
I took out my gun.
Pop, pop, pop!
I ran.
They didn’t come after me.
I went home.
I stayed inside all night and all day.
I didn’t go to school.
I didn’t go out.

I sleep with my gun.
When I wake up I check it.
I put it on the toilet while I take a shower.
I put it in my pants when I’m done.
Then I go out the house.

People think gun violence is all about the adults.
It’s not.
It’s the teens that got the guns.
I know a 12 year old in here had a .50.
It was so big he could hardly handle it.
All the kids have guns.
One time I had so many guns
couldn’t fit them all in my backpack.
I have to protect my mother and my sister.
But I know no matter how many guns I have
something can happen.
Guns aren’t good.

But I feel safer when I have one.

When my mother came for a visit last week
I told her the next time she sees a gun
it will be registered.
The next time she sees money on me
it will be money from my job.
I’ll give her half.
I’m done with this shit.

© 2017, Lisa Ashley  (www.lisaashleyspiritualdirector.com)


Our Massacre

Always portray the killer as deranged,
abnormal, an aberration of society.

Their actions are not those of us
ordinary decent folk, though we arm

ourselves to the teeth with the same
firepower we are reasonable.

Their geography is not ours. We must
distance ourselves. This person

Is not an old friend, a neighbour.
They are a stranger who acts

strangely. We must stress, though often
this behaviour is rare, an anomaly.

We do not know this person
who kills our friends and neighbours.

© 2017, Paul Brookes (The Wombwell Rainbow, Inspiration, History, Imagination)

The Enemy

is a thing, not a person
you chat to, smile with,

laugh with, share your bairns
With. They are something

you respond to and at, not with.
Once seen as it they are easier

to kill, to make redundant.
Don’t worry if this is a symptom

of a psychopath. It is the others
that are mentally deranged, not you.

© 2017, Paul Brookes (The Wombwell Rainbow, Inspiration, History, Imagination)

Guns Are (From A World Where 2)

good. Make you feel safe.
Make you more responsible,

like your own child. Nobody
hurts my child. I’ll shoot anyone

that does. My child needs
A decent education. Some shooter

Who wants to be famous kills
my little one in lessons.

I’m glad I’ve got my gun
so I can kill the shooter

and his family. Guns are good.
Make folk sit up and listen.

© 2017, Paul Brookes (The Wombwell Rainbow, Inspiration, History, Imagination)


..97 the acting..

presume it was. walking

the lane, looked back,

boys in black, turn,

suddenly run shooting.

shouting. turn,

do it all again,

again. i turn,

all i see is heat haze.

we have four dead now.

© 2017, Sonja Benskin Mesher  (Sonja Benskin Mesher, RCA and Sonja’s Drawings)


#An octopus of black smoke#

You love violence
You love bloodshed…
A perpetual war you fought
in an endless night…..
Where lies bravery while you kill innocence…
When your loud laughter
ruptures ailing hearts..
Your firm stick beats flimsy backs…
You are courageous
when the other stands before you with
tender eyes and limp knees…
You are rich when the other is bankrupt.
Have you ever thought that a spiral knot of bankruptcy ..
an octopus of black smoke is approaching to you..
Your throat would be choked
Your breathing would be amiss..
The faint one you desired to distract has also a garden like you
Where flowers flourish Colorful butterflies fly
Humble bees buzz every day and night..
How many jewels have you grabbed
How many rivers of peace have flown through your chest
Being so aggressive..
Now a cloud of languish is nearer to you
A fear of being lost is chasing you..
Your garden may demolish by his musket …
Now its not a face to face war
Its a revenge of mass killing Numerous bloody rivers
would be created ..
You are unknown of it
You are unaware of this new bloody horror
You are ignorant of losing your lovable birdhouse…
If you kenned that…
you never did grab that firegun
Never became a witch bloodthirsty.

© 2017, Kakali Das Ghosh


Guns Are Not the Path to Peace

The child found what looked like a toy
but when a way was found
to fulfill curiosity

found their friend
lying dead at their feet

guns are not the answer to feeling secure
left lying within the reach of
innocence

she was about her morning
preparing breakfast
on yet another Valentine’s Day

when she heard a gunshot
fill the air
and looking ’round

found her husband
of many years crumpled
in the doorway

dead…a gun in his hand

guns are not the answer to depression,
to problems seemingly
having no answer

Leaders of the world always disagreeing
make plans for larger armies
to carry more guns

to kill more people who are caught
in the cross hairs

guns are not the answer to solutions
for forcing others to agree
to another countries’ ideas

guns are not the path to peace

© 2017 Renee Espriu  (Renee Just Turtle Flight and Inspiration, Imagination & Creativity with Wings, Haibun, AR, Haiku & Haiga)


Girl in a Wooden Box

packing
my blue bag
pocketing
my lipstick
turning my back
to Brentwood

I’m on my way home.

Brooklyn beckons
as it always did
as it always does
Hudson River
city parks
a cacophony of languages
a melting pot

She’s on her way too.

by air
not track

her trunk
packed
by strangers
shipped

light
with flip-flops
a blouse
a skirt
poor
practical
that would be her

Occasionally I’d seen her laugh.

I’m
on my way
train grumbling
wheels screeching
town
upon town
Flatbush- a hub
and my stop

and there was my aunt
and there was my mother
and there was the news

Teresa Margaret
is on her way home
shipped
from Florida
on a DC10

stored
along with her trunk
a girl in a wooden box
in a cargo hold

a poor cold girl
Colder bullet in her head.

© 2017, Jamie Dedes


And this addition to the post from Colin Blundell:
Jamie: I notice that I’m 23 minutes late with this! I was stumped with the prompt, sound though it is! I can only think that the world will only change when individuals decide to make a difference. Fifty years ago I signed the Peace Pledge Union pledge: ‘I renounce war and refuse to support or sanction another…’ Anybody who supports the possession of guns and threatens others with bombs is, in my book, just a bloody idiot and I note that the world is full of them, from Trump & Co to the latest shooter…
For a few days I have contemplated posting this bit of irony:
*
I don’t like to admit my views in public
because there’s too much – far too much –
for public people to attack:
you see I’m a vegetarian anarcho-pacifist
I’m vegetarian
because I believe in a fair deal for cows
I disapprove of kings
while bombs & guns scare me
(Easter 1965)
*
23 minutes too late!
© 2017, Colin Blundell (Colin Blundell, All and Everything)

 


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