Prisoner-Authors in the Public Sphere

face of a prisoner

Many prisoners and ex-prisoners have authored public works. A bibliography of published works by U.S. prisoners and ex-prisoners, 1798 to 1988, lists about 950 titles.^ Two-thirds of those titles were published between 1971 and 1981.^ Established literary presses and literary magazines in the U.S. have printed thousands of prisoners’ poems and dozens of prisoners’ books of poetry.^ The American Center of PEN, a global association of writers, established a literary competition for prisoners in 1973. By the late 1990s, the competition was attracting from prisoners “annually about seventeen hundred stories, poems, plays, and non-fiction pieces.”^ Across the century from 1885 to 1985, U.S. prison newspapers and magazines published roughly a million pages of writing that prisoners authored and edited. Traditional publishing involves considerable coordination among persons, time, and expense. The number of works that prisoners have written for publication, but that were never published, is probably much higher than the number of published works.

Some prisoners have been influential and successful authors. Socrates, Paul of Tarsus, Boethius, François Villon, Thomas More, John Bunyan, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, O. Henry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Jackson, Robert Stroud, Malcolm X, Václav Havel, and Nelson Mandela are just some influential public figures who authored important works as prisoners. Letters from prison have been an important genre of English literature for at least five centuries.^ According to a newspaper article published in April, 2006:

Books by inmates, both current and former, are an increasingly lucrative segment of the fast-growing genre known as “street lit,” “ghetto lit,” “urban” or “hip-hop” fiction.^

The article noted that Leondrei Prince, while serving an eight-year sentence in Delaware state prison, wrote a book that sold 50,000 copies in just three years.^ According to one scholarly author:

Much of the influential literature of Judeo-Christian civilization was composed under conditions of incarceration or involuntary exile. … It is arguable that it is impossible to understand Occidental thought without recognizing the central significance of prison and banishment in its theoretical and literary composition.^

Great Prisoners: The First Anthology of Literature Written in Prison (1946) and The victim as criminal and artist: literature from the American prison (1978) exemplify the public importance of prisoners’ publications.

Whether inside or outside prisons, most writers do not achieve popular success. H.L. Mencken, an influential early-twentieth century journalist and public intellectual, solicited manuscripts from prisoners for his journal, The American Mercury. About 1932 Mencken observed:

It seems to me that it would be unwise to differentiate between authors in prison and authors outside. As a matter of fact, the differences separating them are few and inconsiderable. … Most of the manuscripts that have reached me from prisoners during the past three or four years have been of very little merit. Many such poor fellows believe that, because their stories are interesting to themselves, everyone outside ought to be interested in them also. This, of course, doesn’t follow.^

The editor of a literary magazine focusing on prisoners’ work “felt that only 1% of the work submitted to her was publishable.”^ Persons outside prisons have written a huge and continually growing body of words freely available through the Internet. Most publishers would probably consider much less than 1% of those words to be publishable. The editor of a published collection of prisoners’ writings declared:

I am convinced that no reform and no diminution in crime is possible until we realize that the convicted and the nonconvicted comprise but one community.^

Prisoners have been part of the community of public authors. Interests, incentives, and confirmation bias in the market for publications significantly constrain many authors’ possibilities for success. As authors of public works, prisoners have not fared better than have authors in general.

Prisoners have made extraordinary efforts to be published. The book Words From the House of the Dead: Prison Writings from Soledad describes its production on its cover: “A Facsimile Version of a book produced INSIDE Soledad and SMUGGLED OUT.” The book’s preface expresses an ambitious hope:

it is hoped that eventually the work will be made available to every university in america and to every place where concerned citizens go to gather. it is hoped also and too, that the work will come to be regarded as a standard reference work in the field of penology as it offers a brilliant portrayal and an up-to-date view of the criminal mind in the prisons of amerika^

WorldCat lists 332 libraries holding Words From the House of the Dead: Prison Writings from Soledad. For comparison, Gregory Mankiw’s Principles of Economics, probably the most popular college economics textbook, appears in 491 WorldCat libraries. The extraordinary efforts of prisoners who wrote Words From the House of the Dead appear to have been successful in making that work available to universities.

Getting a book into university libraries is not the same as getting it widely read. Economics professors assign students to read Mankiw’s Principles of Economics. Professors grade students based upon their reading of Mankiw’s book. This institutional structure is much less prevalent for reading Words from the House of the Dead. A charge record for Words from the House of the Dead held in a major university library indicates that the book was borrowed once in 1977, once in 1978, once in 1990, and once in 1992. The charge record doesn’t indicate any borrowing since 1992. Charge records in other books indicate with stamps borrowing through 2007. While comprehensive microdata on actual reading are not readily available, a reasonable guess is that only a very small share of the U.S. reading pubic has read Words from the House of the Dead.

William Coffey, Early 19th-Century Prisoner-Author

face of a prisoner

William A. Coffey provides a case study of a nineteenth-century prisoner-author who struggled with meager success to attract attention to his public work. In June, 1823, a book entitled Inside Out; or, an Interior View of the New-York State Prison was published in New York. It had the authorial attribution “By One Who Knows.” William A. Coffey was the author.

William Coffey was well-positioned to be a prisoner-author. A life-long resident of New York City, he received a literary and philosophical education and trained as a lawyer. In 1816, at age twenty-one, Coffey was serving as secretary of the Hamilton Society in New York City. He read Fisher Ames’ eulogy to Hamilton at the Society’s anniversary celebration. In May of 1817, Coffey opened his own law office. In July of 1818, in Trinity Church, Manhattan, he married Anna Isabella, daughter of Joseph Molyneux, formerly of Dublin. In May of 1819, Coffey was convicted of forgery and sentenced to seven years at hard labor in the state prison.

Coffey strove to succeed as a prisoner-author. His background and experiences, along with considerable public interest in prison reform, would seem to bode well for him. Coffey declared in the first paragraph of the preface to Inside Out:

In compiling the following pages, it becomes me to state that I have not been actuated by a nonsensical rage for literary fame. Public utility has been essentially my aim; and if my attempt is not completely unsuccessful, the patronage of the public will follow my endeavours, and the interests of my family will be particularly subserved.^

About two months after Coffey’s book was published in New York, a newspaper in Massachusetts printed an article headlined with the title of the book. The article began by stating that the book had recently been published and that a convict had written it. The article then noted:

The language employed (says a correspondent of the Providence Journal) is chaste, and sometimes elegant; the style is open, clear and perspicuous, often bordering on the margin of poetical fiction ^

Most of the article consisted of two long excerpts from the book. The first excerpt was an “effusion, describing the fondness and faithfulness of his wife in the hour of affliction.” The second excerpt described two convicts, one who had committed highway robbery and a second who was a partner to the murder of a woman. Chaste but sensational fiction, with content to boost women’s self-esteem and to play on their fears, is the sort of writing that has always been popular. The form and content of the newspaper article strongly suggests that it was book puffery.^

Coffey’s book was offered through major institutions for circulating books at the time. The title page declared: “New-York / Printed for the author, / and sold by / James Costigan.” Costigan deposited a copy of the book with a copyright official on June 27, 1823. Costigan claimed copyright as “proprietor” of the work.^ By August, 1823, booksellers in Rhode Island were advertising the book for sale. In 1824, a commercial circulating library in Bennington, Vermont, was offering the book to its subscribers. The Astor Library and the Mercantile Library, two of New York City’s largest libraries, listed the book in their catalogs of 1839 and 1844, respectively.

Coffey personally attempted to win the support of former U.S. president James Madison. About two months after his book was published, Coffey wrote to Madison. Coffey began his letter with the simple, generic salutation, “Sir.” He then provided a narrative of facts:

I herewith send you a copy of “Inside Out” – a work just published in this city, for the benefit of its author. Divested of his profession, and with a dependent family, without the means of acquiring a livelihood, but by the labours of his pen, he has made a trifling attempt at authorship, in the compiling of this work, with the hope, in some degree, of advancing his pecuniary {sic} views.^

Coffey then appealed to Madison’s good-will as a lead-in to self-centered sentiment:

Approaching you as the uniformly active friend of the unfortunate, and as a distinguished philanthropist, he is confident that you will not discountenance his present endeavors, but readily believe of him, in the expressive words of Byron,
That there are hues not always faded,
which shew a mind not all degraded,
Even by the crimes thro’ which it waded.^

Coffey then wrote a terse imperative and a long, formal, high-status closing:

Be pleased to acknowledge the receipt of “Inside Out”; and believe me to be, Sir, Your most Obedient and very humble Servant, Wm. A. Coffey {signed with a large flourish} / 80 Maiden Lane / care of Jos. Molyneux {Coffey’s father-in-law}

Madison’s papers do not include a response to this letter. Leading public figures today probably receive thousands of similar letters. They probably read and retain few of them. That Madison’s papers preserve this letters suggests that, early in the nineteenth century, authors received more attention than they typically do today.

Coffey also brought his book to the attention of the New York legislature. A newspaper reported in March, 1824:

Mr. M’Clure presented a memorial of Wm. A. Coffey, of the city of New-York, offering to substantiate before any proper tribunal the abuses and corruptions which he had declared to exist in the book entitled “Inside Out.”^

While M’Clure was reading Coffey’s statement to the legislature, a member moved to dispense with reading the rest of the statement and return it to Coffey because “it was a paper reflecting upon the officers of the government which the Legislature ought not to hear when coming from a pardoned convict.” Another member responded in support of further reading, noting “if the memorialist was a pardoned convict, yet he was restored by the pardon to all his civil rights, and it was the right of every citizen to be heard.” A third member responded:

He thought it extremely improper for the house to listen to such criminations of their own public officers by a person who, although restored to most of this civil rights, yet having been a tenant of the prison, was not competent to give testimony on the subject before any Court, or any Committee which this Legislature might appoint.^

The motion to suppress reading of Coffey’s statement did not prevail. The statement was read in full to the Legislature. It was then withdrawn from consideration.

Despite reaching influential public figures, Coffey’s book seems to have been unprofitable. Probably no more than 500 copies of the book were printed.^ Coffey paid for the printing and most likely financed distribution costs as well.^ ^ In the introduction to the book, Coffey stated:

If the public should be pleased to receive this volume favourably, it will be followed by another on the same subject, containing equally interesting matter^

The 1820s were a relative propitious time for authors. Some authors in that period received large incomes.^ However, the “normal fate of the untried author” at that time was that “he paid the cost of manufacture {of the book}, paid a commission to a distributor, and allowed the retailer to receive the work on consignment.”^ Inside Out was printed only once. Coffey advocated penal reform and exposed corruption in public administration. He apparently didn’t achieve commercial success.

A newspaper article printed about four years after Coffey’s book hints at the author’s fate. The article described a “petty offender” named “Storms” (no given name provided), who was convicted of burglary:

He had formerly been in the State Prison, and was one of the persons who compiled the book called “Inside Out.” … The literary rogue shewed some talents in writing, and last Saturday he made a tolerable speech to the court, begging mercy, &c. He investigated the evidence, and pronounced it illegal according to the laws of his own country.^ ^

Inside Out documents Coffey penchant for literary display. Moreover, Coffey had trained and practiced as a lawyer. The style and content of Inside Out, as well as Coffey’s letter to Madison and his presentation to the New York legislature, strongly supports Coffey being the sole author of Inside Out. Mid-nineteenth-century library catalogs list Coffey as the sole author of Inside Out. Storms may have been an alias that Coffey adopted. If Coffey was “Storms,” he was sentenced in 1827 to fourteen more years in the state prison.

Coffey may have made an additional effort to achieve success as an author. Storms, with good time, could have been released from Auburn State Prison in 1838. On December 13, 1838, Henry J. Brower, claiming rights as author, deposited A Peep into the State Prison at Auburn “By One Who Knows” with the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the Northern District of New York. Henry J. Brower may have been another alias that Coffey/Storms adopted. A Peep into the State Prison is an inward-looking counterpart to Inside Out. Like Inside Out, A Peep into the State Prison quotes extensively from prison reports, features an epigraph from Shakespeare, includes other literary quotations embedded in the text, and displays the author’s knowledge of Latin, law, and highly stylized upper-class expressions. Both works appeal to philanthropists, frame personal responses in terms of flows of emotion and sentiment, and show concern for jealousy, rivalry, and enemies among the author’s peers. In his preface, the author of A Peep into the State Prison professes “to make use of language adapted to the lowest capacity, to be as concise as the nature of the case will admit, and to offer the publication at so small a price as to be within the scope of every man’s means.”^ With the prolixity that also characterizes Inside Out, A Peep into the State Prison extended for 138 pages.

A Peep into the State Prison seems to have been less successful than Inside Out. Both were printed at the expense of the author (“Printed and published for the author”). Inside Out was broadly disseminated. A Peep into the State Prison wasn’t. A writer for The Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate reported receiving a copy of the “large pamphlet” in February, 1839. Accompanying that large pamphlet was “a request to read and notice it.”^ The writer provided a lengthy description of the pamphlet and urged reading it. But no major newspaper of the time noticed it. Large libraries did not include it in their collections. Prison reformers did not mention it. Today no library in WorldCat other than the New York Historical Society Library reports holding A Peep into the State Prison.

Inside Out and A Peep into the State Prison indicate that the prison wall isn’t the primary barrier to prisoner-authors. Writing a book about an important, largely unknown public institution isn’t enough to make a book successful. Attracting attention and being commercially successful is as big of a challenge for prisoner-authors as it is for authors in general. Because producing and circulating successfully public works is difficult, public discourse that is informed only through public works is narrowly informed.

Horace Lane, Early 19th-Century Prisoner-Author

face of a prisoner

Horace Lane was an early nineteenth-century working-class prisoner-author. Unlike fellow early-nineteenth-century prisoner-author William Coffey, Lane didn’t grow up within the social and intellectual elite. Like Coffey, Lane sought to expose injustices and reform prisons through writing a book. Like Coffey, Lane had little influence on public policy and lived in poverty. For authors, the inspiring ideal of authoring public works has tended to obscure the typical, actual effects of doing so.

Lane grew up in impoverished circumstance and lacked formal education. He was born in 1789 in a farm family in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. Lane’s family moved to Stillwater, New York, a small town on the Hudson River, a year after Lane was born. When Lane was six, his mother died. From age six to ten, Lane lived and worked apart from his family as a child laborer for a farmer, a shoemaker, a country storekeeper, and a clothier. At age ten, he joined the U.S. Navy. He went to sea as a “ship’s boy.” In the navy he endured strenuous conditions, severe floggings, and combat with pirates and the British. He was impressed at least three times into the British navy.^

Lane spent many years in many different prisons. In 1812, after a British man-of-war captured his ship, he endured three months in a British prison ship moored in Bermuda. From about 1815 to 1819, he served four years in a Dutch prison for stealing furniture and participating in a drunken brawl. After returning to the U.S. about 1824, he served fifteen months in the Simsbury mines in Connecticut for breaking into a house and stealing. He was released from that prison spell in February 1826. In May, 1827, he was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to three years of hard labor in the Auburn State Prison. Soon after he was released, he was convicted of burglary and theft. In December, 1830, he entered Sing Sing State Prison to serve a two-year sentence. Upon release from Sing Sing, Lane was given “two dollars, and a suit of old clothes that would scarcely hang together.”^ Lane was forty-three years old. He was already an old man who had suffered much and gained little. His family and social connections were long attenuated. He had no formal education outside of prison. His body was failing from alcoholism and brutal life experiences. He had no skills that would help him to get more than a low-paying job.

Lane became an author. About 1835, he wrote a twenty-four-page pamphlet, “Five Years in State’s Prison; or, Interesting Truths , Showing the Manner of Discipline in the State Prisons at SingSing and Auburn, Exhibiting the Great Contrast Between the Two Institutions, in the Treatment of the Unhappy Inmates; Represented in a Dialogue Between SingSing and Auburn. By Horace Lane, a Discharged and Penitent Convict.” Lane described repeated beatings to force him and other Sing Sing prisoners to work harder:

{a prison official} sent me after large sledge, and set me to breaking up rocks, but it was so heavy I could not swing it: then I got it, the keeper would come and give me five or six raps with his cudgel every half hour, says he, “I’ll learn you how to act the old soldier.” Oh! how I longed for night; and in the morning my bones would ache so I could hardly stir.^

He also described prison officials selling prisoners’ provisions for pigs’ feed and leaving prisoners starving:

I was so hungry that I would watch every chance I could get, to pull up some grass or weeds, to eat; this is the truth, and there was enough others did so too, while the assistant keeper was selling barrels of provision for swill.^

Weakened by the brutal work and poor food, Lane was beaten for staggering while he and other prisoners were marched in formation to work:

You know how they {the prisoners} have to march, one after another, close together, so as one’s belly touches the other’s back; and we had a long hill to go down three times a day. I was so lame in my bones I could not steady myself, and I would stagger and tumble on the others, and then I would get two or three raps over the head with a cudgel. I could not help but cry almost all the time, and the more I cried, the more they beat me.^

Prison reform was a major public issue at that time. Lane’s pamphlet was a sensational, personal account of experiences highly relevant to public discussions of prison reform.

Lane’s pamphlet was also a stirring evangelical testimony in a culture where such testimonies attracted considerable attention. Lane experienced life among the dying. While serving in the navy, Lane participated in battles involving cannon and gun fire. Lane was a prisoner in Sing Sing when a cholera epidemic struck the prison in July and August, 1832. Most of the prisoners became ill, and roughly ten percent died. Lane wrote, “I counted nine, and seven, and five or six a day {dying}, for a fortnight.”^ Lane declared:

I am a standing monument of singular mercy. When numbers were dropping down around me, when instruments of death were rattling thick around me, like the hail from the thunder cloud, and falling like drops of rain, I was preserved among the gasping, groaning, and dying.^

Lane publicly acknowledged and repented his sins. He praised God for mercy and goodness, and urged readers to do likewise. He drew upon his personal experiences as an alcoholic in an extended figurative comparison urging readers to pray:

If you never prayed before, now, before you shut this pamphlet, if you have no disposition {to prayer}, pray God to give you a spirit of prayer. If man never had an inclination to drink strong drink, yet he may get into company where they are drinking, and he may think they feel wonderful well through their jollyness, and be tempted to take a little; and the first glass will create a desire for another, and so he goes on till he gets to be a perfect drunkard: just so you may suppose the Christians, when they get together to worship God, and drink in largely of his heart-reviving Spirit, must feel well, and so they do ^

The temperance movement and revivalist Christianity were powerful social currents in antebellum America. These currents encompassed a far larger group of potential readers than those interested in prison reform.

Lane vigorously promoted sales of his pamphlet. He recorded in his autobiography:

There was no small excitement drawn into operation in the minds of the people, when, with a large literal showbill, I commenced selling my stigmatizing pamphlet about the streets and markets of the city. It was not long before I could hear the boys in all directions crying out, “Five years in State Prison! here comes Five Years in State Prison!” This was truly humiliating to the natural man; and had it not been that I was in straitened circumstances, I think my pride would have overcome my desire to do good.^

Having to promote themselves to potential readers has been an enduring source of humiliation for many authors. This author had actual personal experience relevant to an institution with major public significance. That didn’t change the necessity of promotion:

I was bold to attest to the truth of the above pamphlet, as being my own experience. Some were so swelled up with haughty disdain, that they said, (seldom without an imprecation or an oath,) “You ought to go back, and stay there for life.” It was hard for me to keep from retaliating; sometimes I got off my guard, but generally kept in mind that humility is better than pride.^

On the street one day, some gentlemen put to the author this proposition:

what would I take to read one of the pamphlets through? I made them no answer; they offered me, I think, twenty-five cents. I thought I could do it in less than an hour, and that would be good wages; but the condition was, that I was to mount, and stand on a pile of codfish, and in the form of an orator perform the task. … They stalked the money; I mounted; the force of my agitations produced the cold sweat, but I read on; while they, observing my firmness, purchased a pamphlet, left me the twenty-five cents, and retired.^

In one form or another, many authors face similar challenges. Successful authors re-enforce their status by encouraging others to attempt to achieve it. Taking the position of an author in the public sphere can be a degrading experience even for persons with the lowest social status.

Lane reaped meager rewards from his authorship. In the preface to Five Years in State’s Prison, Lane wrote:

I do not undertake this work, thinking to gain fame or applause; to the contrary, I know that the greater part will ridicule me, and say, “What a vile wretch!” … If I don’t get fame and applause, I am in hopes of getting a few shillings, or dimes, or cents.^

Lane reported that he sold eleven thousand copies of his pamphlet.^ That’s almost surely more than twenty times more copies than William Coffey, another early nineteenth-century prisoner-author, sold of his book Inside Out. But Lane noted that selling eleven thousand copies did not bring him much net profit: “it took me so long, and my expenses were so great on steamboats, railroads, and other ways, that I did not make much.”^

Over the long run, Lane’s work apparently benefited Lane and prisoners little. Perhaps because of poor prospects for alternative employment, Lane continued to write and sell publications. In 1839, he published a 225-page autobiography entitled The Wandering Boy, or Careless Sailor, and Result of Inconsideration. A True Narrative. In 1843 he published a patriotic song sheet, The Yankee Boy that went to sea from 99 to 43.^ Nonetheless, by the 1840s, destitute and ill, he was spending time in Sailor’s Snug Harbor, an “Asylum, or Marine Hospital, … for the purpose of maintaining and supporting aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors.”^ ^

Any reform at Sing Sing that Lane helped to produce was at best short-lived. In 1842, Elam Lynds, a prison official known for brutal floggings, was rehired at Sing Sing.^ Lane petitioned Congress in 1855 for a military pension. He was refused.^ Lane is largely a forgotten name in the history of prison reform. Exposés of brutal treatment of prisoners have been a staple of prison literature through to the present. These stories haven’t been successful in producing enduring, systemic changes in the scope and nature of imprisonment.