Sunday, April 20, 2008


Dateline: Monday, April 14, 2008
Location: deep inside a prison cell in Florida

Yesterday, I spoke about the national writing award from the PEN American Center in NYC. They have some great people associated with PEN - it used to stand for Poets, Essayists & Novelists - I know very few of them now; that's the price you pay for outliving others' expectations, I suppose. Larry McMurtry, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow, the late Arthur Miller, and Salman Rushdie were once prominent, but I don't see their names anymore. Bit the ones important to me are Bell Chevigny, Jackson Taylor, Susan Yankowitz, William Brantley, and the late, great Fielding Dawson, all mentors and encouragers.

The incongruity is that so many prisoners are illiterate, can't read or write, that most people who know are amazed that anyone in prison can tie ten words together in a sentence. The inability to read and write bodes ill for our society. These people must get jobs and support poverty-stricken families oftentimes as soon as they are released, and with no education, what kind of job can they get?

Time and time again the guards have posted memos, I'd be reading them, and someone would ask, "What does it say, Norman?" I'd move out of the way so they could read it. "I don't have my glasses," is a common excuse to alleviate the shame of prison illiteracy.

I have written thousands of letters for fellow prisoners over the years. Most don't even know how to compose a simple letter. I ask them, "Just tell me what you want to say, and I'll put it together for you." "Mama, how are you, can you send me some money, when are you coming to see me, can you bring my children?" Much of it is heartbreaking, much of it is pitiful.

People in society shouldn't fear most of the people in prison -- they fear the people in society even more. These are the ones who sat in the back of the class in school, who never raised their hands, who skipped, who had undiagnosed and untreated learning disabilities and mental illnesses, who can't hold a job, so they steal, and not very well.

It is in the interest of society to teach these prisoners to read and write stories and poems, enter and win literary competitions, watch the news, take an interest in the world, become law-abiding members of that same society.

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