NEW HAVEN AND MONROE, CONN. — Prison made a convert of Malcolm X, but the Massachusetts Department of Corrections never got credit for his vital role in the Nation of Islam. Prison made a letter writer of the apostle Paul, but Rome missed out on royalties for his correspondence with the Corinthians, Ephesians, and Thessalonians. Prison made a statesman of Nelson Mandela, but his Robben Island jailers got paid back only in Truth and Reconciliation.
Or at least, that's how their stories might be told in Connecticut.
There, the state has recently filed a case against a group of eight women, current and former inmates of the maximum- security York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., who with the help of bestselling novelist Wally Lamb have published a collection of essays about their early lives and prison time, "Couldn't Keep It To Myself: Testimonies From Our Imprisoned Sisters." The fruits of a writing workshop Mr. Lamb teaches at the prison, the collection was planned as a privately printed gift to inmates' families and friends - until Lamb's publisher, HarperCollins, offered to make a book of it.
On paper, the state's case against the contributors is purely about money: State law says Connecticut should recover from inmates the cost of their incarceration. But the York defendants, their lawyer, and Lamb say their book proceeds are so small that the state must have more complex motives for pursuing them. Some hold that the Commissioner of Corrections referred the case to the attorney general because some of the essays were critical of the prison. Others see it as evidence that the system is more devoted to punishment than to rehabilitation.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal says it's none of these reasons. When Department of Corrections (DOC) officers found the women's book contracts in their prison mail, he speculates, they probably thought of Lamb's Oprah appearances and his staggering book proceeds.
"If this book had become a bestseller and produced millions of dollars for Wally Lamb and the authors, the commissioner could have been criticized, and rightly so, for failing to enforce the law," he says.
Since 1997, a vaguely worded statute and regulations have required (or, depending on their interpretation, allowed) Connecticut to try to recover from inmates the cost of their incarceration. At more than $100 a day, these costs add up. But it is neither practical nor, some argue, legal to try to wring money from all of the more than 19,000 inmates now in state custody - or from the roughly 175,000 who have left it since the law went into effect. So these regulations have, in practice, meant the state goes after an inmate's funds only if the DOC happens to learn, usually from the news or inmate mail, that she's come into some money.
Steven Ecker, the women's attorney, argues that the statute is a lot like the criminal-justice system itself: unevenly applied. The law's ambiguity - and the fact that, like most states, Connecticut doesn't require inmates to disclose their assets when they come to prison - means prisoners who wind up paying for their incarceration aren't the wealthiest - just those who get caught coming into money.
Any sum the state could collect in this case would be symbolic. The writers and Lamb donated two-thirteenths of their book advance to a shelter for battered women. The remainder, divided 11 ways, was a little less than $6,000 apiece. (The four already discharged say they used that money to pay debts that piled up during their first months out as they struggled to find jobs. Those still incarcerated have not received any money.) If the book, now in stores, sells well, Mr. Ecker says, each could receive up to $6,000 more.
Either way, their proceeds would hardly make a dent in the debts the state says they owe for their incarceration, most of which exceed $100,000. Bonnie Foreshaw, the contributor who's been locked up longest, is named in the lawsuit as owing $913,777. "She'd have to write like 200 and something more books in order to pay," says contributor Nancy Whiteley, working in a deli in Ridgefield, Conn., after serving time for credit-card fraud. "That's just not likely."
Despite the debts claimed in the suit, the book's contributors insist it isn't really about money.
Contributor Robin Cullen, who served time for manslaughter and now runs her own housepainting business in Prospect, Conn., sees it as proof that the DOC feels threatened by informed critics. "I think they're worried, 'cause the doors are open now to what's really going on inside the facility," she says. "Voices are coming out from behind the walls."
A case like this isn't just a disincentive to rehabilitation, it's a double standard, adds Ms. Whiteley. "If I went to jail and I took cabinetmaking class and got out and made money making cabinets, I wouldn't be getting a bill. A lot of people learn things in jail and do them on the outside and make money - that's what we're supposed to do."
"Provided they're legal," jokes Cullen.
Lamb sees words as part of the problem, too. The state is only looking at one kind of "cost," he argues, when there are many: the cost of the women's imprisonment, and the great cost - to their victims, their victims' families, and society - of their crimes. But also. the cost of society's decision to lock so many up rather than address the roots of criminal behavior. And the personal cost to workshop participants who worked hard, he says, digging into painful pasts in the way that honest writing - and real rehabilitation - demand (of 11 contributors, eight have been battered and nine sexually abused).
"I have to admit," says contributor Tabatha Rowley, working in a bookstore in New Haven, Conn., after serving time for assault, "if I knew it was going to be a published book, I don't know that I would have written so honestly and freely. Like stuff my mother said? I don't usually tell nobody stuff like that."
Attorney General Blumenthal says the case is in no way intended to punish the women for their success. A proposal under consideration in the state legislature could change the law, but for now, he says, it's his job to pursue the case - for funds they, after all, would most likely not have but for their time in custody.
"They've been convicted of very serious felonies," he says, "and the state prosecuted them for those felonies, and the human-interest value of their writing may well have been enhanced by that prosecution and imprisonment. So the interest in their writing, insofar as it is related to their imprisonment, perhaps is the state's doing. And of course, the state provided the workshop."
The image this conjures - of York, home to Connecticut's 1,430 female inmates, as a sort of high-security Yaddo, a writer's colony behind bars - may seem absurd. But contributors say it also raises a serious question: If the state is prepared to take financial credit for what becomes of inmates who succeed in prison, should it also be accountable for those who fail?
"OK, I'll give that to them [that we might not have been published writers without the prison workshop]," says Whiteley, "But I don't think [the state] can pick and choose what they are and are not responsible for. How about the rapes? How about the beatings?
"I'll be happy to give them every single penny I make from this book, and I'm pretty sure all the girls will, if they'll also take responsibility for all the girls who come out of jail and die, or commit suicide inside. Are they responsible for that? I'm not angry, but I want to know."