Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Inmate writers deserve bylines, forum; Remembering The Echo and Jorge Renaud

An interesting news item I'd missed last month, via the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: Federal prisons can no longer prevent inmates from writing bylined articles:
U.S. District Judge Marcia S. Krieger rejected prison officials' contentions that the regulation was needed to prevent inmates from gaining notoriety among fellow prisoners because of articles they authored, to leave prison employees free to exercise control over inmates without fear their conduct and statements would be published in the press, and to prevent prisoners from starting businesses behind prison walls.
This may be one of those "be careful what you ask for" victories. In Texas, the prison newspaper The Echo was shut down after an old college buddy of mine, Jorge Renaud (still serving a quite-long stretch for armed robbery, sad to say) wrote a pair of bylined investigative stories that administrators considered critical of an April 2000 system-wide lockdown.

Jorge's story makes me sad whenever I think of it. Without exaggeration, Jorge was the most innately talented Texas writer of my generation, even though he's spent most of his adult life behind bars. He authored a guide for Texas prisoners and their families published by a university press, and also this account of fatherhood behind bars. Jorge also writes poetry that's powerful but tender, humorous and often stunningly moving. More than once I've grumbled to Kathy that Jorge has a more significant writing career than I do and he's locked up in Huntsville!

We're all worse off because Jorge and other talented writers in prison can't practice their craft, or when we diminish their ability to tell their stories to the outside world. How much would our culture have been enriched were Dostoevsky allowed to write publicly about his ordeal in a Siberian prison at the time it occurred? Most prison writers aren't as good as Dostoevsky, or Jorge, but IMO just one emerging from among them now and again would make all the others' lesser work tolerable.

I'd like to see The Echo revived and published online in addition to within TDCJ's confines. And I'm glad in this case the courts are protecting inmates' rights, at least on the margins, to publish their stories and participate, to the extent they choose, in the national conversation just like every other American.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: A commenter informs me that The Echo some time ago resumed publication and is under control of the Windham School District. A quick online check confirmed that, and I'm sorry for the error. Here's subscription information for those interested:
The ECHO is a monthly censored publication compiled by inmate staff at the Windham School District's Media Center, under TDCJ guidelines for dedicated use by TDCJ offenders. Subscriptions to the Echo can be purchased for $12 (US subscription), or $15 (Outside the US.) Money orders or personal checks must be made out to the Echo/WSD. Correspondence via U.S. Mail must be addressed to the Echo, P.O. Box 40, Huntsville, TX 77342-0040.


Anonymous said...

The gift of art is caged in Texas and elsewhere. I have met kids and adults incarcerated who can write, draw, paint, vocalize, and sing far better than I'll ever be able to or that the system will permit be free to show the FREE what they have until they are uncaged.

Actually, the caged bird does sing.

The Abolishment Movement said...

Reminds me of Bryan Sorens who did one more year in prison for writing articles for magazines, and getting pais several thousand dollars.
I know he had a law suit (First Amendment)going about this, but I lost touch with him so I don't know if he won.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.


Anonymous said...

Scott, I believe they resumed publishing the ECHO sometime ago. It's under the Windham ISD umbrella.

Anonymous said...

Until prisoners have access to the internet, their rights to free speech (expression) continue to be denied.

Prisoners and prison conditions are invisible to the public in general. That is why conditions are so terrible!

The government will fight the rights of prisoners to communicate as long and as hard as they can. Keeping prisoners "invisible" is the only way the authorities can avoid accountability for their cruelty.

Just because everyone does it, doesn't mean it is not curel and unusual punishment.

Anonymous said...

I dont think inmates should have direct access to the internet, that is taking free expression a little too far even, for me. But many inmates have access to it indirectly and write so that friends & families can post on website like MySpace.

I agree with anon @1.21, it is such a terrible shame that so many tallented people dont find their tallent until after they are incarcerated.

And I was going to say that The ECHO is still in circulation but your other commenter beat me to it :)

Anonymous said...

The problem really started in the 80's with then inmate editor guy marble, also known in the media as"The Gentleman Rapist". What a "manipulator"!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Have any more history or detail about Mr. Marble or his tenure as editor? I'd love to hear it.

Anonymous said...

Talking of free expression, Scott have you seen the new directive from TDCJ on writing paper and stationary? Well here it is:

From TDCJ:

The Texas Board of Criminal Justice approved the revisions to Board Policy 03.91, Uniform Offender Correspondence Rules on July 13, 2007. The revised definition of stationery is white, undecorated paper, not to exceed the size of 8 1/2" X 11", or unstamped white envelopes, including carbon paper and white envelopes with the offender's commitment name and TDCJ number preprinted in the return address portion of the envelope, but excluding any paper with names, addresses or letterhead, and excluding tablets or writing pads with stapled binding. (NOTE: Ruled white paper is not considered decorated and is permitted.)

Effective October 1, 2007, offenders will not be allowed to receive colored paper from an approved vendor.

Offenders will still be allowed to receive note cards with matching envelopes and journals with white paper. However, offenders will not be allowed to receive the yellow legal pads.


I've been told it is because the girls at Mountain View were soaking the coloured paper with their white uniforms to dye them different colours. Can anyone else shed any light on the REAL reson behind this rule change? There are a couple of Texan vendors who run their businesses specifically to provide inmates with coloured paper and envelopes, so obviously these will be severely financially hurt by this new rule.

Anonymous said...

If you want to know more about Guy Marble who was editor of The Echo for a long time,check here: Before I knew he was our raping women at night he was a friend of mine....we worked at the same place. It's an interesting story you won't see much about anywhere. He was a smart guy.....and very manipulative!