Voices From the Inside: Celebrate the Power of Prisoners' Writing

Nov 25 2016

Voices From the Inside: Celebrate the Power of Prisoners’ Writing

November 25th, 2016

An amazing event will take place in New York on Monday, November 28 to celebrate the award-winning work of men and women incarcerated across the country—PEN America’s Breakout: Voices from the Inside. Actors and writers like Jeffrey Toobin will be reading submissions from the annual prison writing contest held by the PEN Prison Writing Program, which is hosting the event.

Having served 12 years in prison for a drug-law violation, I am a direct beneficiary of this program. Here is a piece I wrote to celebrate it, and give tribute to my former writing teacher and mentor Fielding Dawson, who was its director and chairman.


Fielding Dawson, author and teacher, 1930-2002

It’s a Tuesday evening in the sweltering heat of August back in 1990. I make my way down the battleship-gray corridors topped with slabs of razor-wire to the school building. It’s there I was to attend my first writing class and meet Fielding Dawson.

When I arrived at the small classroom it was jam-packed with prisoners. Fielding stood in front of the class and held court about the importance of writing. The words he spoke caught my attention and from that day on, I was hooked. And the hook was reciprocal, because Fielding was amazed with the talent he saw in his classroom. He said it was because of the difference he found between teaching in prisons and universities—intuitive connections with convict students were made much quicker and were more durable. In prison he discovered the writing was more audacious, honest and outspoken than conventional writing.

As a student in his class, I thought the difference was in the makeup of his students. When he came to his prison workshops he never knew what was going to happen. Fielding directed the class dialogue toward breaking down barriers that prevented writers from getting to the core of their emotions and thoughts.

Fielding and I quickly became friends, even though it was against policy to do so. The administration had strict rules against civilian teachers having personal relationships with prisoners. They were not allowed to accept phone calls from prisoners or even correspond with them, but Fielding didn’t care about that. He saw us as human beings, not the monsters the prison folks portrayed us to be. Fielding helped me with my writing and my artwork and encouraged me to write in order to capture the emotional responses to my incarceration.

What I loved about Fielding was his willingness support us and to be one with us. He showed us this by advocating for prisoners beyond the walls that imprisoned us. In the 1990s he was the host of a popular radio show he had every Thursday on WBAI Pacifica Radio. It was there he read letters from prisoners across the United States, creating a link between those incarcerated and those in the free world. This was a way in which prisoners had an opportunity to tell the world of the issues they faced. They looked at him as a prophet of sorts, not one who read the future, but one who raised the consciousness of people who were unaware of the lives of prisoners behind the wall.

It was through his teaching that he influenced me, now as a free person, to continue what he did.

Today, I have a letter project that engages hundreds of prisoners across America who send me their stories that I in turn get published for them in the media. I continue to write too, publishing my writings on popular online magazines such as The Influence and the Huffington Post, and also through my two published memoirs telling of the atrocities of imprisonment and the plight of those re-entering society. Fielding Dawson would be proud of me for continuing the work he did for those who are imprisoned by giving them a chance to be heard from behind prison walls.

Join us at 6 pm on Monday, November 28 at The Green Space, 44 Charlton Street, NYC. You can find more information and tickets here.

Anthony Papa is an activist, author and artist. He is manager of media and artist relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, and his art has been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art and many other venues. He is the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency (2016) and 15 to Life (2004). You can follow him on Twitter: @AnthonyPapa.

  • tpapa

    Fielding was a great human being. Here is a artistic statement he wrote for me when I had an exhibit at NYTS while I was imprisoned at Sing Sing Prison.

    By Fielding Dawson , Author/Artist /written in 1996
    In a culture where cops, I mean all cops: FBI, CIA, down to the state level, down to
    the local level sheriffs and deputies, where they never wrote a poem or did a
    drawing in their collective life, while prisons overflow with creative talent,
    this humble exhibition in this gallery space, heralds the new event of the
    merger of Outsider Art with prison art. To
    project onto the world an even more abrasive , annoying, childish and
    embarrassing way of creating images often hard to forget, to educated snobs that
    don’t want to remember! Proving once again what art can do.
    One of the essential realities of changes in art history is like it or
    not, the viewer must accept the responsibility of seeing the work as it is,
    before coming to judgement. No matter what the media or critics say, the viewer has a
    chance to see the work, and judge for him/herself.
    And as prisoners are on the icing on the cake of being outsiders, who, it
    need not be argued, in fact it is more representative, than this gifted. Mr.
    Papa, who while in prison discovered his talent.