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May 1, 2012

Yale Law Journal sponsoring prisoner writing contest

YaleA helpful reader altered me to the interesting news that the Yale Law Journal is now, as detailed on this webpage, welcoming submissions for its first Prison Law Writing Contest.  Here are some of the details:

If you are or recently have been in jail or prison, we invite you to write a short essay about your experiences with the law.  The three top submissions will win cash prizes, and we hope to publish the best work....

The Contest offers people in prison the chance to share their stories with people who shape the law and to explain how the law affects their lives.  Where permitted by state law, the authors of the winning essays will receive prizes: $250 for first place, $100 for second place, and $50 for third place.

Here are just some of the interesting topics concerning which the Yale Law Journal seeks submissions:

Here are the basic rules: "You may submit an essay if you have been an inmate in a prison or jail at any point from January 1, 2010 through September 30, 2012. We welcome essays of about 1000-5000 words, or roughly 4-20 pages."

Kudos to the students at Yale for running this interesting writing contest. I hope they will consider reporting on the number of submissions they receive and consider making many of them widely available for public consumption (at least on-line).

May 1, 2012 at 11:04 AM | Permalink


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Will the YLJ be soliciting articles from crime victims telling about what their assailants have offered to do to help them heal from getting cracked over the head with a tire iron to get their wallet? Or swindled out of their life savings at age 70? Or crippled by a gunshot to the spine at age 17 in order to get their fancy sneakers?

My wife went to Yale and has yet to live it down. This won't help a bit.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 1, 2012 2:54:39 PM

I coordinate an arts program at the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center, where I meet some amazing young writers. I was wondering if the contest is open to juveniles...

Posted by: Beth Dixon | May 1, 2012 3:31:43 PM

Thank you for this. I'm sending it to several who are doing life without parole. Some of them are very good writers. Bill, they are all non-violent, but writing can inspire insight and introspection on the part of the author as well as inform the reader.

Posted by: beth | May 1, 2012 9:40:24 PM

beth --

"Bill, they are all non-violent..."

If that is the case, I missed it in the rules for entering. But if it is in the rules, why? Can't those who committed violent acts also have insight and introspection?

"...but writing can inspire insight and introspection on the part of the author as well as inform the reader."

It can also, and far more frequently, be used to present a completely one-sided version, fuzzing over or omitting entirely facts unfavorable to the writer. Is there going to be fact-checking? Is anyone going to point out the incentives to gild the lily? And, as I asked before, is the YLJ interested in only how the convict sees it, not the victim? If there is any plan to solicit victim stories, I haven't heard about it. Do you know of any?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 1, 2012 11:24:08 PM

No, they don't have to be non-violent - I just meant to say that's who I would send it to. You know, literature is good for the soul, but if writing is propaganda the reader could employ some critical thinking - of course what one reads is optional.

Posted by: beth | May 1, 2012 11:55:51 PM

beth --

Personally, I hope they bring in stories from people who do murder for hire; lifelong child rapists; big time swindlers who plundered and ruined the lives of elderly couples; a meth dealer who made a bunch selling his wares to high school kids; and maybe one of these sex/torture guys like the fellow who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart -- you know, that sort.

Somehow I just kinda think people like that will get swept under the rug in favor of the rote rendition on this forum: The (we can all do this in our sleep) first-time, low-level, non-violent pot smoker who, at 18, had sex with his longtime 17 year-old girlfriend and is now serving 200 years in Mississippi state prison, with 5000 more years on the Registry after that.

Anyone who thinks this YLJ project is going to be anything but a one-sided sob story for the NACDL knows nothing about the clinical practice or political orientation at that law school.

And when were you saying the YLJ was sending out its solicitation for stories from crime victims?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 2, 2012 8:19:35 AM

I don't know how this is going to work out for YLJ; it could go horribly wrong (Jack Abbott, anyone?), but at least the listed topics relate to the law either practically or theoretically. For example, it would seem a good think to hear from actual offenders whether or not they found prison to be a deterring, or rehabilitating element in their life. I don't see how the facts of the underlying crime plays into this inquiry, other than as anecdote.

Necessarily, the only productive essays would come from non-violent or marginally violent first-time offenders or first-time prisoners. I cannot see what lifers, habitual offenders or sociopaths have to say constructively on this subject. But I cannot see the harm in hearing what those who either have or will re-enter society, hopefully never to reoffend again, have to say about their experience. What works needs more investment; what doesn't needs to be scrapped. The criminal justice system does not always well distinguish between those we are disappointed and those we are afraid of. This may contribute to the effort to do better.

Posted by: C | May 2, 2012 10:22:49 AM

People like Charles Dutton and Alan Simpson have written about their criminal pasts so this doesn't seem that bad of a deal. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to have those in prison re-enter society, e.g., and having them discuss their experiences make sense. Learning about prison, including as a "scare straight" matter (e.g., tell ya what ... stealing that car doesn't seem a good idea anymore after I could see my wife and son like once a month or so since they had to take three buses to get to see me and all), should please even some tough on crime sorts. Still, some appear not to like the idea.

Posted by: Joe | May 2, 2012 12:54:50 PM

C --

I have no doubt that the YLJ articles will be easier to digest if it airbrushes out the thousands and thousands of bad guys in prison and cherry picks some sweethearts. That, of course, is the whole misleading agenda.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 2, 2012 2:52:35 PM

For the past ten years inmates have sent me novels, screenplays, short stories. The plan to to have them published and made into a film. You may call me a promoter of writers, novels, screenplays.

Posted by: Arthur | Dec 30, 2012 12:48:14 PM

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