Back to previous post: The modern office: technological boneyard and slough of despond

Go to Making Light's front page.

Forward to next post: The Corner of 4th Ave and 9th Street

Subscribe (via RSS) to this post's comment thread. (What does this mean? Here's a quick introduction.)

July 7, 2008

Where’s Victor’s Manuscript?
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 09:36 AM *

Victor L. Martin, a prisoner in Elizabeth City, NC, has had his latest manuscript, 310 pages, confiscated, for “prison safety.”

Martin’s problem is that he’s managed to get published, and prison rules say prisoners can’t run a business from inside prison (because if they make money they aren’t safe). There’s an assumption there that all prisoners must be destitute that probably doesn’t bear looking at.

Meanwhile, from the News & Observer:

Victor Martin has been writing since he was a child, but he didn’t realize it could be a career until he became a convict.

A few years ago, Martin became a published author, writing four novels while lying in his bunk in a state prison in Elizabeth City. His books, which feature a high-rolling criminal named Unique, have a following among readers of what is known as “urban fiction,” a popular literary genre characterized by explicit tales of inner-city crime life. Martin’s books are available on barnesandnoble.com.

But Martin says prison officials are shutting him down, saying his novels violate a policy that bars inmates from conducting business behind bars.

Martin, a 32-year-old habitual felon with several theft-related convictions, says the policy violates his right to free speech. Martin’s attorneys are challenging the policy, which they say prison officials have used to confiscate Martin’s manuscripts and discipline him for writing.

He’s being published by a very small publisher. His publisher says that writers play a very small part in the business of publishing (and boy-howdy does she speak true). She says that so far he hasn’t made any money. (That’s very likely true too.) This isn’t a publisher that pays advances, either. (Here are their guidelines.)

The story continues:

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina have sent a letter to officials with the state Department of Correction asking about the whereabouts of a 310-page manuscript that they say was confiscated.

“There is no evidence that his writing is posing a danger,” said Katherine Lewis Parker, legal director with the ACLU’s North Carolina branch.

I can’t imagine any more crushing punishment for a writer than confiscating his manuscript.

There’s quite a bit more; please go read the full story.

Here are Mr. Martin’s four novels:

If the state of North Carolina has its way, no one will be able to read the sequel until Martin gets out in 2021.

Comments on Where's Victor's Manuscript?:
#1 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 09:55 AM:

To be honest, I can see a few problems over the nature of the books. How might they make him look to a parole hearing? (Depends on what happens to the character, I reckon.)

But this is at least a fairly simple instance of a business, which can be controlled in a simple way. Rather than money trickling into the prison economy, which could make trouble, any royalty payments could just be put into a bank account, even earning interest, until the guy gets out.

But there always seems to be, when looking from another continent, a mean streak in the running of American penal systems. It's as if they want to block every hope of going straight. Right now, we can't know if he'll be a successful writer in 15 years, or still an habitual criminal. But the state of North Carolina seems to want to destroy any hope of redemption. They want to see him come back; they prefer to accumulate crominals.


#2 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 10:37 AM:

My thoughts exactly. Good god, if they don't do something now, the guy might rehabilitate himself! If every convict did that, what would happen to the prison industry?

#3 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 10:39 AM:

Have they not heard of Edward Bunker?

Separately, the idea that prisoners should be kept impoverished (not to be confused with the related issue of whether a prisoner can profit from his or her crimes by writing a memoir) is rather horrifying. I can think of few wthings that would better contribute to recidivism than ensuring that all paroled felons are broke on release.

#4 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 10:43 AM:

Dave, I can see the mean streak from this continent, too.

#5 ::: Caroline ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 10:49 AM:

Dave Bell @1 -- yeah, pretty much.

My father does a lot of volunteering with guys who are about to get out of prison and have just gotten out. He teaches them how to look for work, how to deal with a job interview, where to go to get job training, how to pay bills and manage money.

These are guys who went into prison when they were teenagers and never learned how to deal with life on the outside. The volunteer organization is the only thing that keeps them from just being dumped outside the prison with no clue.

And it can only do so much good. Most businesses won't touch someone with a criminal record, even if they're only hiring a burger flipper. So a lot of the guys my dad works with end up dealing drugs again, because they can't see any other way out. Then they go back to jail. Lather, rinse, repeat.

#6 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:05 AM:

Discipline him for writing.

For writing?

If he were a murderer making money off of selling the rights to his account of a killing, there might be a case for victims getting the proceeds, but this is just insane. Thank goodness for the ACLU.

And there is a "mean streak" in the US prison system. Prisoners are intended to suffer, non-prisoner citizens are socialized to hate them, and want them to suffer, and the government is complicit in the message.

#7 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:08 AM:

The prison industry relies on repeat customers to stay in business.

#8 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:13 AM:

#3: Didn't O. Henry get started writing in prison too? I seem to recall that's why he used the synonym.

What disturbs me most about this somehow is the claim that it involves prison safety. It makes it seem like part of the far broader, pernicious phenomenon of describing things authorities don't like, which don't threaten anybody, as "dangers" -- such as photographs, as have been discussed here before. A creeping authoritarian mindset that's very worrisome.

Obviously, if there's concerns about money in the prison, the suggestion above to simply hold the money in an account is the answer. But I suggest that the real reason is the sense that someone who's succeeding (in any way at anything) isn't suffering; and prison is supposed to punish. It's supposed to hurt. That, and not anything remotely resembling rehabilitation, is the likely motive here.

#9 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:15 AM:

#6: Cross-posted there, or I wouldn't have repeated. But yeah: want them to suffer, want them to hurt. That's the point. (For the public. For the industries, it's all about the repeat customers, as James McDonald says.)

#10 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 11:22 AM:

James, #7: Particularly in view of the increasing trend toward privatization of the prison system. This is an argument that might be very useful if your community, or your state, is having that discussion.

The government saves money by having fewer people in prison, so it's to their advantage to promote rehabilitation. Private industries make money by having MORE people in prison, so it's to their advantage to promote recidivism. Which of those two goals is to the advantage of society as a whole?

#11 ::: Josh Jasper ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 12:29 PM:

Lee @ #10 - Some people maintain that retributive justice has a social benefit. It's one of the oldest traditions of justice in history. Not just repayment of debt, but that society has a duty to inflict a corresponding hurt to a wrongdoer, both for deterrence, and for revenge.

Me? I think it's mostly bullshit.

#12 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:02 PM:

I don't know whether Erwin James still writes about prison related issues for the UK's Guardian newspaper, but if so, he's probably have an interesting perspective on this, having started covering that beat while still in prison...

#13 ::: Terry Karney ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:08 PM:

Insane. Just insane. God forbid a guy should find a way out of the cycle of recidivism.

Not only not allowed to profit from crimes (acceptable) but not allowed to profit from anything.

Shameful.

#14 ::: Bruce Arthurs ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:24 PM:

As Stephen Frug suggested, the obvious response would be to put any literary earnings into a savings account (trust fund?) that couldn't be accessed until he's released from prison.

And as Teresa pointed out, since he's been published by a small no-advance publisher and hasn't sold that many copies, there isn't any money from his books yet. (Although with the publicity from the prison's seizing of his manuscript, he may actually end up selling enough copies to earn something.)

Besides O. Henry, there have been other prison writers. Frank Elli's THE RIOT was written in prison (and made into a movie starring Jim Brown and Gene Hackman). There was another writer -- spacing out on the name; Johnson? -- who did a number of prison-set hard-boiled paperback novels -- in the Gold Medal line, iirc -- back in the 60's, while serving time.

(And I was thinking that John Ehrlichman wrote THE COMPANY while serving time on his Watergate conviction, but checking the dates, he probably wrote it while waiting for and appealing his sentence.)

#15 ::: Nina Katarina ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:51 PM:

At the risk of Godwining this thread, a certain Austrian wrote about his struggle while he was in prison.

And then there's Boethius, who wrote The Consolations of Philosophy while in prison.

#16 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 01:54 PM:

I think the answer overall is to abolish the for-profit prison industry. Do you know that the US has the highest percentage of its population in incarceration of any nation in the world? This is because of our "justice" system, not despite it.

It really is in the best interests of the prison industry to prevent people from making a life for themselves on the outside. The profit motive is a powerful one, and appears to negate any conscience the motivated person (or people, which is the rub) may have.

I'd like to see a law forbidding prisoners from being shipped out of state when they're convicted under a state law. The Texas prison industry, one of the harshest in the nation, is making a killing from the lack of this law. Also...forbid any state from expanding its prison system, or overcrowding prisons.

That way, when the prisons are full, in order to incarcerate someone they would have to release someone else. A "least harm" system could be used to determine whom. In fact, all prisoners would be ranked in order of releaseability, taking into account the seriousness of their offenses, whether they present an ongoing danger to society, and the time remaining on their sentence. Then each time the state wants to incarcerate someone, the person at the top of the queue is released.

States have gotten away with this enslavement scam for too long.

#17 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:41 PM:

Um, why do so many prisons sponsor creative writing programs if they are going to do this?

This is truly disgusting and so much like too much of this nation.

Love, C.

#18 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:49 PM:

Sir Thomas Malory wrote the Morte d'Arthur while in prison.

St. John of the Cross wrote the Dark Night of the Soul while in prison.

#19 ::: pixelfish ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:56 PM:

A certain French marquis also wrote a bit while confined.

I'm sure more examples will spring to mind shortly.

#20 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 02:56 PM:

Xopher, #16: Part of the problem is that this is all tied up with the War On Some Drugs. Draconian legislation mandating lengthy (and in some cases ineligible for parole) sentences for relatively low-level substance offenses means that the "least harm" algorithm cannot be used to free those people in order to incarcerate, say, someone convicted of armed robbery.

OTOH, since "soft on terrorism" is the new "soft on drugs", it might be possible to unobtrusively get some of that legislation repealed now.

#21 ::: Julia Rios ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 03:30 PM:

I agree with David Bell @ #1 about just putting the money into a bank account that the prisoner can access post-release. I cannot see a way in which that would pose a safety risk. This is ridiculous and horrible.

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 03:56 PM:

Lee 20: I think fixing the problems stemming from the so-called War on Drugs would be relatively easy compared to outlawing for-profit prisons and forbidding states to traffic in incarceration across state lines.

In other words, I know my solution would require extensive changes in the law. A state that wouldn't change its laws would have to stop incarcerating any more people. The first release of a violent criminal under these laws would lead to an outcry. Trust me, some of those drug offenders would find themselves getting pardons.

#23 ::: Madeline F ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 04:03 PM:

Marco Polo didn't write his tale in prison, but he told it to another prisoner who wrote it down, an' we would never have known else...

I hope this guy's book wasn't shredded or trashed.

#24 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 04:08 PM:

Oscar Wilde. Tom Paine. Martin Luther King Jr.

#25 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 04:41 PM:

John Bunyan wrote a large number of books in prison, including The Pilgrim's Progress.

#26 ::: Issendai ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 04:47 PM:

One of the official reasons the prison gives is that if an inmate has extra money, he's more likely to be shaken down for it. What about inmates who have savings? Are they prevented from withdrawing more than a certain amount per month? Are they forbidden to communicate with anyone on the outside to manage investments and accounts, thereby generating more money for themselves? Or is it just the ones who are already poor who are expected to stay poor?

I'm skeptical of a conspiracy to encourage recidivism. People relapse perfectly well on their own, and always have. On the other hand, good old-fashioned class snobbery is always an institutional favorite.

#27 ::: HP ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 05:00 PM:

I'm a bit surprised that no one has mentioned Jack Abbot.

The whole Norman Mailer/Jack Abbot parole incident was quite the media spectacle at the time, and I suspect it may be informing the current situation.

#28 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 06:47 PM:

Well, he hasn't made any money from his work yet, nor has his publisher.

A New Orleanian rapper recorded an album in prison -- on his cell phone's mic, or something like that. he wasn't supposed to do that. His lawyer smuggled the stuff he needed in and out. It went #1 in NO.

Love, C.

#29 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 06:54 PM:

I suspect that the original intent behind the "not operating a business from prison" rule was to prevent the heads of gangs and crime families and the like from continuing to run their organizations while incarcerated. And it's being enforced on some hapless one-step-above-self-published novelist for the same reason that high school principals with zero-tolerance drugs-in-school policies ignore the apprentice thugs who are dealing and the rich kids who are buying, in favor of making a big deal about suspending the honor roll student who got caught giving her buddy a Midol for cramps: Taking on somebody who has the resources -- in either money or muscle -- to fight back and win risks making the whole system look silly.

#30 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 07:00 PM:

P&E is now onboard in support of Mr. Martin and his publisher.

#31 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 08:11 PM:

The books of the New Testament commonly called Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon were written while Paul was in prison.

#32 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 08:54 PM:

Daniel Martin #31: since Ephesians is the source of the "wives, submit to your husbands" line that's been invoked in support of so much that I disagree with, I'm not as crazy about your example as I am about the earlier ones invoked, but the overall point isn't lost.

#33 ::: --E ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 09:05 PM:

Maybe when he gets out he'll be Solzhenitsyn.

I think he should start Cell Block Storytime, and gather all the little criminals around him right before lights-out, and tell them a chapter a night.

#34 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 09:53 PM:

Now I'm curious about the economics of Triple Crown; I haven't heard of Mr. Martin's books before this post, but urban fiction goes like gangbusters at two of the three libraries I've worked at. My initial assumption was that it was a thriving genre and thriving publisher. But the books are poorly bound and have proofreading problems. I'm not talking about dialect, or sentences that don't conform to traditional prescriptivist grammar. I'm talking about a book where all of the punctuation on the back cover had been replaced with different punctuation, by some formatting error that was never fixed.

That's neither here nor there from Mr. Martin and his plight - just something that piqued my curiosity.

#35 ::: Zeborah ::: (view all by) ::: July 07, 2008, 09:53 PM:

Rikibeth @32 -- I'm convinced that Paul's intentions were to strengthen women's positions rather than to reinforce a status quo or make it worse for women: not only should wives submit to their husbands, but husbands should love their wives so much that they would die for them. In the 21st century a more obviously equal phrasing would be preferable, but I can cut someone from the 1st century (writing to a specific audience in that century, to boot) a little slack. I get annoyed at those who try to justify the subordination of women by quoting only the first half of what he says: it does a disservice to women and to Paul alike, who said some great stuff despite not anticipating the age of the soundbite.

I think he's an important addition to the list.

#36 ::: Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 12:13 AM:

Curiously enough, I just finished reading Barry Wilson's book How Jesus Became Christian, which is all about Paul, and the strange mismatch between the mystical revealed religion Paul did so much to establish, and that nice Jewish boy named Jesus.

I don't suppose it matters now, considering how much water has gone under that bridge, but Paul really invented a whole new religion which had very little to do with what Jesus had been preaching. (And Acts is not a reliable account of Paul's life, either.)

#37 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 12:51 AM:

Issendai, #26: Never be too skeptical about any motivation that puts more money in a rich man's pockets. Private prison systems are applying a restaurant model of business to maximize their profits; you don't make any money from a one-time customer.

#38 ::: Russ ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 05:59 AM:

Caroline@5

This is way tangential so feel free to ignore me, but I'm reminded of a recent Guardian story -

http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,,2288192,00.html

The fact that a spent conviction should be held against you for the rest of your life seems wrong to me, but I'm willing to accept the situation described in the Guardian article is nuanced.

#39 ::: Network Geek ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 11:38 AM:

Stephen @#8, yes, O. Henry did write most of his work in prison, in fact. And the pseudonym (ie. O. Henry), was actually the name of a guard. It was his birthday recently and Writer's Almanac had a piece on him.

#40 ::: Sisuile ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 12:32 PM:

Russ @ 38

It's all too common. It's why most employment applications and school applications ask about convictions - and it hits the poor the worst.

#41 ::: sherrold ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 02:59 PM:

I'm surprised they didn't encourage him to make more money (get him a proofreader, perhaps?), and then sock him with "pay to stay" fees. Recently some guy in New England inherited $30,000 just as he was about to get out of jail, and the state grabbed *all* of it. (And now, having typed this, I can't make Google find me a source, though I did find out that in Ct., they only will take 1/2 of your inheritance. Mighty big of them.)

#42 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 07:43 PM:

I'm not convinced that privately owned prisons conspire to increase recidivism.

After all, what are the odds that the ex-prisoner will end up in the same prison rather than enriching some other prison owner?

I suspect that what's actually going on is that it's cheaper to supply a sterile, brutal environment, and that prison owners are in American culture, which means that they're likely to be self-righteous about the value of making prisoners miserable.

#43 ::: Brenda Kalt ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 11:29 PM:

Jim, thanks for posting this. The best hope for getting Mr. Martin's manuscript back is for *lots* of people to get on his case. Lots.

Meanwhile (the News and Observer is my daily paper), for a look at what's been going on in the state while Mr. Martin was writing his novels:

The mental health reform program implemented in 2004 has failed and has cost the state big bucks. The new state mental hospital is too unsafe to house patients (too many opportunities to commit suicide). The head of the mental hospital used money from the patients' vending-machine profits (supposed to go toward their recreation) to commission a large, very flattering portrait of herself to hang in the hospital. She's been fired and the portrait is in storage. A delegation including the governor and his wife went to Italy to recruit business and tourism for North Carolina, and they rented "a daily chauffeured luxury Mercedes-Benz sedan and a van" for the governor and his wife @ $52,000 a day. Speaking of the governor's wife, a college professor of something making $90,300 per year, was moved to a new post paying $170,000 per year.

The governor should have resigned after 7 years. This eighth year has been a beaut.

#44 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: July 08, 2008, 11:39 PM:

Nancy #42: what are the odds that the ex-prisoner will end up in the same prison rather than enriching some other prison owner?

Pretty good. These aren't mom and pop businesses we're talking about--if wikipedia is to be at least slightly trusted on the figures (and they do seem well-cited), there are three companies that together own over 75% of the private prisons in the USA. It's like saying "what are the odds that if I turn on a commercial radio station, it'll be owned by Clear Channel?" It's not a certainty, it's probably not even 50/50, but from their perspective, it's not a bad bet.

#45 ::: Mycroft W ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2008, 02:34 PM:

Here's hoping my country's favourite robber baron (well, not really, he renounced his citizenship so he could be Lord) Black (strangely enough, he applied to get it back when it seemed better to be tried and incarcerated in Canada than in the U.S. Oh how we laughed) isn't allowed to keep any of his money, either.

#46 ::: John Chu ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2008, 03:35 PM:

#42: That was the unsurprising thing about some of the listener response to an NPR story about overcrowding and poor conditions at California prisons. The response, of course, was cloaked in terms of Sympathy For The Victims, and Taking Responsibility For One's Actions. However, it ultimately boiled down to, as you said, self-righteousness about making prisoners as miserable as possible.

Of course we should be sympathetic to victims of crimes, and criminals absolutely ought to be responsible for their actions. What bothers me is when people haul those arguments out to short circuit discussion of whether our treatment of prisoners is just or not.

#47 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: July 09, 2008, 04:19 PM:

It has, for many moons, boggled my mind that our "government" (whether defined as the people in office, or the people who put them in office, i.e., us) would rather keep building prisons than spend the equivalent on bringing the public school system up to snuff. My hope being that a school system that actually teaches children useful things (rather than teaching them how to take standardized tests), and has a full range of other activities--art, music, shop, etc.--would substantially decrease the need for prisons.

Don't know that it would, but sure would like to think so.

#48 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: July 10, 2008, 12:37 AM:

Oh how we laughed

didn't we just? Golden moments. Still worth a a guffaw, now and again.

#49 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: July 13, 2008, 10:30 AM:

Russ@38: I would be more likely to trust someone who has shown that he can turn himself around than some of the pre-meds and at least one med-school faculty member I've known. I'm not surprised a lot of people are getting holier-than-thou about this, but I have to wonder:
- Since this is an Asian in the UK, is there racism involved?
- If someone destined by class for Harley Street had misbehaved this way, would his parents have gotten the charges dealt with?

Brenda@43: $52,000 per \day/? Surely there's a decimal point (or period) misplaced somewhere in that? Not that NC is unique in kind -- many public executives seem to think they must make a grand presentation, even in MA -- but that sounds like enough to \buy/ a limo and rent a platoon of 24/7 footmen.

#50 ::: Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: July 24, 2008, 09:54 AM:

Thanks to sentencing laws that have increased the numbers of prisoners serving "without parole" sentencing, I don't see how a true triage release system could work. Are all such instances considered federal, rather than state crimes? Something needs to be done about the increase in mandatory sentencing that is feeding these prison systems. I truly believe that most US Americans see "justice" as being served only when there is an element of punishment and revenge. Our culture is not known to have good long range vision. I cannot speak for other countries and cultures. Do they also have these problems? Why don't I hear about increases in prisoners from countries that have a "guilty until proven innocent" justice system?

Choose:
Smaller type (our default)
Larger type
Even larger type, with serifs

Dire legal notice
Making Light copyright 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden. All rights reserved.