My main reservation in writing from the perspective of prison writing has been due in part, to the way in which some editors insist on pigeon holing our work as something that is remarkable or worthy of publication not because of its merits, but because of its novelty to an audience seeking to read “prison writing” that is captivating, and awe-inspiring, because they cannot believe that “they write that well for being prisoners.”
The reservations were born from experiences that I have had as a writer in EJP, and the continued emphasis that has been put on distinguishing our own writing from say, a professor or a student that does not find him/herself incarcerated. This exigency has more often than not, been brought on by editors of the publishing house that may be asking for our manuscripts; an example of this would be when an advisor from Language Partners (a program where bilingual educators deprived of our freedom, teach our peers English) submitted and subsequently published an article which was a collaborative effort from all Language Partner Teachers and Instructors, to the Teaching English in the Two-Year College publication editor, as simply University of Illinois students, to which the editor replied that somewhere in our entry, the mention of prisoners or prison writers must accompany our text.
The insistence on the above stipulation made me question the motives for requesting our academic writing. Was our writing simply a morbid curiosity by outsiders to see “how well prisoners write?” Was the fact that we are incarcerated the catalyst that fueled the desire for our work, from publishing houses? Is our “prison writing” that much of a carnival side-show? Why does the possibility even exist of why our work might not be considered on par with other academic colleagues that are not incarcerated? That has always been my gripe. Does our writing matter to society at large or only to the educators here today?
I want my writing to be representative of my humanity, my intellect, the depth or shallowness of my views all on its own. Judge my work as inchoate or well-seasoned and academically sound, disregarding the fact that I am imprisoned. However, I want you today to see why I have always had a problem with the label forced upon my writing: prison writing.
Any time I have written an essay, an academic composition, poem, memoir, even letters; I have created them with a frame of mind removed as far away from the endemic suffocation of the prison system, and that has always been a conscious effort. It has been a conscious effort to maintain not my sanity but my humanity; my ability to be humane, empathetic, to love and be loyal to my family and friends, to have kindness towards others, to be reasonable in my dealings with people, to be thoughtful with my words, to be respectful, to remain whole.
My sanity ensues from knowing that I have remained true to the person I have always been since I was in the “free world,” in society; even amidst the dissonance of this chaotic environment. The mental strain that one is subjected to, from being told when to eat, when to shower, when to use a phone, when to lock up and when to come out; out of having your loved ones sitting next to you or in front of you, but not being able to get up and show them affection, other than when you come in to the visiting room and when you leave; it produces a calloused spirit and mind if you allow it to happen.
My defense mechanism has been in place from the beginning of my time in these places. I eschew any and all thought of being deprived of my freedom by occupying my time in a positive and progressive fashion, through education.
In no way am I undermining the important work that educators do and which can result from difficult dialectics of sensitive subjects, I simply feel the need to clarify my view that sometimes, even when we do good work, some people can feel marginalized. I understand the irony that insists itself into the conversation, because it is prison writing and I am the one doing the writing from prison. However, I refuse to turn my writing into a sideshow. If we give credence to the idea that we are prison writers, then we will be; we perpetuate it in our psyche and our soul. I am simply a writer. I am not defined by my surroundings. I have never defined myself by my surroundings; on the contrary, I have always made the concerted effort to remove my mind and principles as far away as possible from the toxicity that is the penal system environment, and when editors insist that our writing be showcased with the moniker of prison writing, my opportunity to write from the perspective and the normalcy of a human being is derailed, and I am relegated to be viewed as just a prisoner that happens to write.
I want to remain whole.