Writing a Book While Incarcerated

Writing a book while incarcerated presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Overcoming the limitations of the prison environment, many individuals find that writing becomes a powerful tool for self-expression, personal growth, and even impacting the world beyond the prison walls. Embracing the art of writing can afford inmates a sense of purpose and serve as a lifeline to the outside world. Moreover, the act of writing can help in navigating the complexities of emotions and experiences during incarceration, potentially leading to transformative personal development.

The incarcerated face unique circumstances that deeply affect the writing process. Limited access to research materials, restrictions on the types of allowed writing instruments, and the absence of digital writing tools are just a few. However, these constraints have also bred ingenuity and resourcefulness among incarcerated writers. From developing meticulous organizational strategies for their manuscripts to cultivating rich, imaginative worlds to escape into through their stories, these writers demonstrate resilience and adaptability.

This post will touch on strategies for planning and outlining a literary work under the constraints of prison life, methods for remaining focused and motivated despite the surrounding environment, and advice for seeking feedback and support within the limited networks available to those on the inside. Rather than simply presenting a guideline, the forthcoming content will encapsulate the lived experiences of those who have successfully navigated the path of authorship behind bars, providing insights and inspiration gleaned from real-world stories of creativity and perseverance.

Understand Rules and Limitations

Before beginning to write a book while incarcerated, it’s crucial to understand the specific rules and limitations of the facility where you are housed. Rules regarding possession of writing materials, allowed correspondence, and permissible content can vary greatly between institutions. Thoroughly familiarize yourself with these to avoid any pitfalls that could disrupt your writing process, result in your materials being confiscated, or even find yourself dealing with disciplinary action that could result in you ending up in the SHU. Being mindful of these constraints from the outset helps to create a framework within which you can express yourself freely and effectively.

Pro tip: many incarcerated writers write in “sprints,” and mail completed sections of their books home so they are not at-risk of being confiscated or lost. This is considered best practice. Some said they purchased a copy card at commissary so they can both send a copy home and retain a copy, as they felt having a copy in-hand was important as they continued to write the next section of their book.

Legal Exposure and Considerations

Writing a book about your legal troubles, especially when it involves exposing other parties, can be a complex and sensitive endeavor. Speak with your lawyer so you avoid any self-incrimination or defamation risks. You’ll also want to make sure to respect the privacy of other individuals involved, as failure to do so may lead to legal action: if your book includes stories or experiences of other individuals, consider their rights.

Those in prison should also consider whether they might be impacted by a Son of Sam law, which is a blanket term for laws designed to prevent criminals from profiting from the publicity of their offense conduct. These are laws that only exist within certain states and many have been challenged as they violate the free-speech guarantee provided by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It’s generally unlikely Son of Sam laws apply to you but consult your lawyer.

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Establishing a Consistent Writing Routine While Incarcerated

Creating a consistent writing routine within the confines of incarceration involves adapting to the strict schedules and environmental constraints prisoners face. Set aside a specific time each day for writing, if possible, to establish a routine. This might be during personal time in your cell or a quiet period in the prison library. Consistency helps to build discipline and can enhance creativity, as your mind becomes accustomed to entering a creative state at the same times each day. It’s important to communicate with fellow inmates and prison staff about your project, if feasible, to reduce interruptions during your allocated writing time.

  1. Identify the best time for writing. Early mornings or late evenings might offer quieter moments, but use your judgment on what is best for you. Some find an outdoor writing environment with fresh air can stimulate creativity – others need total silence so they can focus.
  2. Develop a pre-writing ritual. Engage in a short ritual before writing, like going for a walk or meditating, to transition your mind into a writing state. Think of this like your “commute” to work, where you’re preparing for your day.
  3. Set realistic goals. Set achievable writing goals, like a certain word count or an amount of time that you write each day or week. This can keep you motivated and give you somethign to “win” each day or week.

Decide on Which Writing Method Works for You

In prison, access to writing materials might be limited, so plan accordingly to acquire what you need.

Hand-Writing Your Book

If you’re going to hand-write your book and you have someone who can put money on your books at commissary, basic items like paper, pens, or pencils are usually available through the commissary. Make sure to keep your materials organized and secure, as they can be susceptible to loss or theft. Staying organized not only helps with the efficiency of your writing project but also protects the work you have accomplished so far.

If you’re going the handwritten route, make sure you focus on legibility. Poor handwriting can make the editing process challenging and could cause issues if the manuscript is to be transcribed or read by others later on. If necessary, spend time improving your penmanship for the sake of those who will ultimately read and type your manuscript. Practicing good handwriting is also beneficial for reviewing and editing your work, helping you to make more effective revisions and reducing potential misunderstandings or transcription errors.

Typing Your Book While Incarcerated

If you prefer to type, there are two options while you’re incarcerated. Many in the federal system leverage the e-mail computer system for writing, opening the e-mail software and treating the e-mail composer like a word processor. People will write up to the 13,000 character limit and then either print or e-mail the section to a loved one for safe-keeping. (Make sure the recipient knows to print this, as e-mails automatically delete after a period of time and will not be accessible once you leave prison.) This method works and works well but be mindful that time on the e-mail computer costs money on a per-minute basis ($0.05 per minute as of 2024), so this can add up quickly.

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The other way you may be able to type is by using the typewriters available in some prison law libraries. In order to make use of these, you will need to acquire a typewriter ribbon, available at commissary.

Seek Feedback and Support When Possible

Although incarcerated, it may still be possible to receive feedback on your writing. Reach out to any educational programs within the prison, as teachers or volunteers might be able to provide critiques and guidance. You can also consider sharing your work with trusted fellow inmates to gain different perspectives. Should you have access to legal counsel or supportive family members and friends outside of prison, they too can be valuable resources for feedback. Be cautious and ensure that sharing your work complies with the institution’s regulations on sharing materials. This feedback can be invaluable and provide motivation to continue working through the unique challenges of writing within a prison environment.

Be Prepared for the Emotional Journey of Unpacking Your Story

Delving into personal experiences, particularly those leading to imprisonment, can unearth a range of complex emotions, making the process even more challenging in a restrictive and often stressful prison environment. These heightened sensitivities necessitate a preparedness to confront and navigate through an emotional labyrinth. Writing, in this context, offers a cathartic outlet for self-expression and reflection, transforming pain and regret into a source of creative strength and personal growth. It’s important to recognize that setbacks and emotional upheavals are an inherent part of the writing process, and learning to embrace and learn from these experiences is vital.

Keeping a personal journal alongside the book can offer a private space for unfiltered emotional expression, serving as a therapeutic tool. Furthermore, celebrating small achievements in writing, such as completing chapters, can boost morale and provide a sense of accomplishment amidst the emotional challenges.

Though it’s natural to be concerned about the negative impact of processing your trauma, the psychological benefits of writing are not to be underestimated. Writing can serve as a therapeutic outlet, allowing inmates to process and articulate their thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner. This form of expressive writing can lead to improved mental health and emotional well-being, and it can help your family understand what you’re going through.

Plan for Post-Incarceration Publishing

While you may start writing your book during incarceration, it’s equally important to think about what happens once you’re released. Start laying the groundwork for publishing your book after your release. This could involve learning about the publishing industry, identifying potential agents or publishers, or considering self-publishing options. One quick tip is to look for books that are similar to the one you’re writing and make note of the people and companies involved: you may find success reaching out to that same publisher, or seeking advice from the author.

Develop a post-release plan for how you will continue working on and promoting your book. Research the resources available to formerly incarcerated individuals, including writing programs, re-entry services, or grants that could assist you in getting your book published. Having a clear plan for how you’ll bring your work to the public can provide hope and motivation throughout your incarceration and beyond.

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Summary of the Challenges of Writing a Best-Selling Book Bars

Embarking on the journey of writing a book within the confines of incarceration presents unique and formidable challenges. While these obstacles may be daunting, they often serve as a testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of the human spirit.

  • Limited Access to Research Materials: Incarcerated authors frequently grapple with restricted access to research resources. Libraries in correctional facilities, often have a limited selection of books and no access to the internet. This makes verifying facts or conducting in-depth research for non-fiction or historical narratives a complex task. Take the case of Wilbert Rideau, the author of the acclaimed memoir “In the Place of Justice.” Rideau overcame these limitations by utilizing the resources available in the prison library and seeking assistance from individuals outside of prison who provided research materials and information.
  • Restricted Communication: Engaging with editors, publishers, or writing mentors can be a significant hurdle due to constraints on communication. Inmates have limited phone call privileges, mail, and monitored emails, making the editorial process slow and cumbersome. However, this limited communication can encourage a writer to become more self-sufficient and thoughtful in their revisions before reaching out. Kenny Bryce, a writer who started his book while incarcerated, navigated these restrictions by writing countless letters and making strategic phone calls when granted the opportunity.
  • Lack of Writing Materials: Basic writing supplies, such as paper and pens, can be scarce in prison. Nevertheless, scarcity can breed creativity. Some incarcerated writers have been known to write on any paper they can find, even using margins and backsides of documents.
  • Environmental Challenges: The prison environment is not conducive to concentration and creativity. The noise, lack of privacy, and the often tense atmosphere can disrupt the writing process. Yet, these challenges can also lead to an increased focus and determination. The case of Jack Henry Abbott, who wrote “In the Belly of the Beast,” is a prime example where the oppressive environment of solitary confinement became a catalyst for profound reflection and writing.
  • Legal and Censorship Issues: Incarcerated writers might face legal repercussions or censorship based on the content of their writing. Prisons have the authority to seize manuscripts that they consider a security threat or that contain forbidden topics. Even with these risks, many choose to express themselves through writing, regardless of the potential consequences. Edward Bunker’s successful novel “No Beast So Fierce” was completed despite the constant threat of his work being confiscated, illustrating a steadfast commitment to literary expression.

Although these cons can appear insurmountable, they have been and continue to be overcome by a determined few. These challenges may not only fortify an author’s resolve but also enrich their narrative, adding depth and authenticity to their voice. Every hindrance faced and navigated by an incarcerated author ostensibly validates their unyielding pursuit of storytelling from the most unlikely of settings.