writing program will continue
after debate over prize money
By SARAH COFFEY
Associated Press Writer
April 13, 2004, 8:53 PM EDT
WETHERSFIELD, Conn. -- A prison writing program suspended after an inmate won a $25,000 writing prize will continue, and the state will not seize the winnings to recover incarceration costs, top state officials said Tuesday.
Department of Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz said she stopped the writing program Friday after learning that inmate Barbara Parsons Lane had won a PEN American Center prize for her work on the 2003 book "Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters."
The compilation was written by prisoners at the York Correctional Institution in East Lyme who participated in a writing course taught by best-selling author Wally Lamb.
Lantz said she wasn't told the book was up for an award and suspended the program after learning it had won. The suspension might have been avoided by better communication between Lamb and herself, she said.
"In the prisons business, you just don't like surprises," she said.
Lantz said she decided to continue the program after meeting Tuesday with Lamb, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield, and PEN American Center director Larry Siems.
Siems, who heads the center's Freedom to Write and International Programs, had said he was concerned that the women, who did not write about their crimes, were being targeted for their work. He said they were being penalized, intentionally or unintentionally, for freedom of expression.
Lantz said the writing program is an excellent way for prisoners to assess their feelings, values and beliefs and ponder how they want to live their lives, she said.
"The program is what it's all about, and we want to make sure it's continued," she said.
Each of the inmates featured in the book is entitled to $5,600 from publisher Harper Collins following their release from prison.
The state went to court last year to seize the book's royalties at a rate of $117 per day under a state law that permits the state to recover incarceration costs from inmates. Lane received a bill for $339,505.
Blumenthal said he won't go after the prize money because it is the result of skills learned from a rehabilitative program.
Blumenthal said he is pursuing a change in the state law that would narrow the scope of the law to exclude income earned from rehabilitative activity or training while in prison, or following an inmates' release.
"The focus will be on windfalls and other excesses in income," he said. The proposed changes are before the legislature.
Blumenthal said the state will likely reach a settlement with Lane that excludes her prize money.
He said the state has recovered $2 million from inmates since the program began five years ago.
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