menu

How to Write a Book in Prison & Get It Published


Publishing from prison is a more complicated than publishing outside, but it's entirely possible. Wahida Clark published six novels while serving a 10-year federal sentence; on her release, she founded her own publishing company. She's part of a tradition of writing in prison that includes St. Paul, Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.

Finding Allies

In recent years, the American Correctional Association has begun helping to publicize prison-writing contests, and some prisons are recognizing the value of narrative therapy in rehabilitation. [PEN America's Prison Writing Program] (http://www.pen.org/prison-writing) offers a free prison-writing handbook, a mentoring program and an annual writing contest. The [Prison Arts Coalition] ( http://theprisonartscoalition.com) maintains a national database of prison arts programs; many offer outside support to prison writers.

Doing the Work Inside

Many prisoners have found that once they get started, they feel driven to write in every spare moment. Some have said that it's actually easier to get writing done inside the walls, where fewer tempting distractions are available to spend one's free time. Not every prison allows access to word-processing technology, but many a great work has been written in pen on legal pads.

Avoiding Regulatory Roadblocks

The act of writing itself is fine; appearing to run a business, however, can get you in hot water. Most prisons have regulations that ban prisoners from conducting any profit-making business while inside. Even if a prisoner is writing fiction with no connection to her own crime, a publishing contract or even allusion to success in a prisoner's mail can run afoul of these regulations and lead to disciplinary action. Be aware of the rules, and avoid anything that's technically a violation.

Staying Within the Law

Many states have enacted "Son of Sam" laws that forbid convicted felons or their representatives from profiting from the stories of their own crimes, allowing the state to confiscate all proceeds and award them to victims as compensation. The Supreme Court has ruled that these laws must be narrow and specific to avoid violating First Amendment rights. It's a complex and contentious legal issue; check your state's laws carefully if your work is in any way related to the reason you are imprisoned.

Publishing From Prison

The Prisons Foundation maintains a website, through which they publish uploaded manuscripts of incarcerated writers. Though the foundation doesn't compensate writers, they can submit their work without a fee and retain all rights for potential future sale to a publisher. Vidahlia Press and Publishing House actively seeks submissions of book-length and shorter works from prisoners for its annual INK writing contest. Both organizations accept legible hand-printed work. Prison writers who have someone on the outside who can help with manuscript preparation can also go the traditional route: Get a current copy of Writer's Market, and target publishers or agents who specialize in related works.

About the Author

Anne Pyburn Craig has written for a range of regional and local publications ranging from in-depth local investigative journalism to parenting, business, real estate and green building publications. She frequently writes tourism and lifestyle articles for chamber of commerce publications and is a respected book reviewer.

Photo Credits
  • Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images