helping prisoners find their voice

Recognizing The Writing Behind The Wall

An aspiring novelist lends a hand to incarcerated writers

When Eric Taylor was earning his MFA in fiction and aspiring to have his novel published, he never expected that some of his most fascinating lessons would come from prison—not that Taylor found himself behind bars, but he did find himself volunteering his time to help prisoners across the country gain recognition for their own writing.

As Taylor told Good Turns recently, one of the teachers in his MFA program was at the time running a prison writing program on behalf of PEN America, the writers’ advocacy and human rights group. The program provides resources, mentorship, and wider audiences for prisoners around the United States. When Taylor’s professor asked whether he’d be interested in coordinating the program’s main annual contest on a volunteer basis, Taylor agreed.

“It’s an excellent contest,” Taylor says. “It is open to anybody incarcerated in the United States. It is a series of all cash prizes that run in different categories [fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama], and the volume of entries is just incredible. At the time I coordinated the contest [2006 to 2008], it was about 3,000 entries a year. Often it’s handwritten.”

“It has just been a great way to do something for a community that’s incredibly disenfranchised”

“And it’s intense,” Taylor says. “The fiction pieces are so intense, because it’s often about life on the inside, or navigating life on the outside, and variations in there. Or it’s incredible fantasy stories, great stuff.”

The prizes were all cash, so Taylor would help send checks to the winners in prison. “Some of them are in super max facilities and don’t get their mail. Their rights are really taken away from them, they can be searched at any time,” Taylor says. “So in one case I was able to correspond with this person and find out what he wanted with his money, and find a catalog so he could get it and place the order, and make sure he got the thing he wanted. It was an extremely satisfying thing to do for somebody who didn’t really get much of anything.”

The PEN prison writing program also has a mentorship component. “You can be a mentor for somebody who wins the award. You use PEN as the clearinghouse for all the mail, and you interact with this inmate at least three times during the year. You establish a rapport with them, you give them tips. So I became a mentor for an incarcerated person, and that was incredibly satisfying as well,” Taylor recalls. “You get not only new work, but also feedback from them. You just feel very good about giving back.”

Though he still serves as a judge for the contest, Taylor’s day job is as a product manager for TurnTo Networks, the company behind the Good Turns blog. He continues to write, however, having since produced a novel and a collection of short stories.

Though Taylor has volunteered for organizations like God’s Love We Deliver and others, he still remembers coordinating the prison writing contest as a standout. “It was a window for me into a whole other community,” he says. “It has just been a great way to be in touch with these people and do something for a community that’s incredibly disenfranchised.”

What a great way to take advantage of one’s freedom.

(Photo of San Quentin prison courtesy of Flickr user telmo32)

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