The prison system
Tomorrow it will be released in bookstores This was me, a collection of stories about life in prison written by Curtis Dawkins, a man who is serving a life sentence for murder in a Michigan prison in the United States. The book was published in the United States last summer by Scribner, one of the most prestigious American publishing houses, has already been translated in the Netherlands, will also be published in Germany and in Italy is published by Mondadori. Only as an advance for the American edition Dawkins got 150 thousand dollars, about 121 thousand euros. Now, however, says an article in the New York Times, the state of Michigan would like this money to pay for the food and housing that the prison system is giving to Dawkins.
More than forty American states, including Michigan, can in fact force their inmates to pay the costs of their incarceration, including the costs of transport by police vehicles, those for office defense, drug tests and electronic monitoring in case they are out on bail. The laws in this regard have been introduced in recent decades because the number of people in prisons has increased – due to increasingly harsh repressive policies even against non-violent crimes – and so the costs of the prison system have increased: it hosts more than 2.2 millions of adults. In most cases, inmates are not wealthy people, so states usually do not cover a lot of expenses by taking their money: in the last fiscal year the state of Michigan got $ 3.7 million from 294 of its nearly 40 thousand inmates.
Prisoners have to pay for their maintenance
In some states the money laws that prisoners have to pay for their maintenance cannot be applied if the prisoners are unable to pay. However, states try in every way to get money from prisoners; often, for example, they take a huge percentage of the earnings that prisoners get by participating in professional programs. In some cases, states have received more substantial repayments when their prisoners have received inheritance or compensation. The state of Illinois took 20 thousand of the 31 thousand dollars obtained as inheritance from the death of his mother by a prisoner sentenced to serve 15 months for a drug-related crime: at his exit from prison, in 2015, he remained practically without money. The state of Florida took 55 thousand of the 150 thousand dollars obtained from a prisoner negotiating with the same prison department of the state in a negligence trial: the one for which it was possible that another detainee took an eye from him in 2011. Usually when the prisoners and the ex-prisoners sue states for these cash withdrawals, states win trials.
In the case of Curtis Dawkins, the state of Michigan wants 90 percent of the money it has earned and will earn with This was me ( The original Graybar Hotel ), so both the advance it received and the royalties on the number of copies sold and the proceeds from the sale of translation rights in other countries: money that Dawkins has partly put into a fund to allow his three children aged 23, 19 and 17 to study. The state also wants 90 percent of the money that Dawkins’ family puts into his account in prison: he has estimated that since Dawkins has been in prison since 2005, he has spent more than 372 thousand dollars, almost 300 thousand euros. To get this money, Michigan filed a lawsuit against Dawkins last October and a hearing will be held on February 26th. According to the prosecution Dawkins, his parents and his literary agent Sandra Dijkstra had no right to allocate the proceeds of the publication of This was me to the children of ergastolano.
Dawkins’ stories have received good reviews in the United States; for example those of the novelist Nickolas Butler, who was persuaded to publicly praise the collection after learning that Dawkins felt intense remorse for killing a man.
Dawkins has done university studies (English literature at Southern Illinois University and writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo) but before he was sentenced to life imprisonment he did not have great financial resources. The murder for which he was sentenced is linked to a history of serious addictions to alcohol and other substances, which began when Dawkins was only 12 (today he is 49) and alternated with periods of sobriety. In the early 2000s Dawkins had three children and sold cars for work, but he didn’t have much money and he and his partner often argued: at that time he developed an addiction to opioid drugs (a problem that has become widespread in the States in recent years United), then from ketamine and heroin. In 2004 his partner asked him to go and live elsewhere, the use of drugs made him paranoid of drug dealers and for this he bought himself a gun to protect himself.
The murder took place on the evening of October 30, 2004. Dawkins smoked crack, a substance he later told the police he had never tried before, and drank alcohol for the first time in many years. Then he put on a 1920s gangster Halloween costume and a monster mask, took his gun and started wandering around the neighborhood around Western Michigan University. At one point he fired shots into the air and then tried to rob Thomas Bowman, a 48-year-old man who was on his front porch: Dawkins asked him for money and when Bowman refused to give it to him, Dawkins shot him, killing him.
Dawkins began writing fiction a year after his arrest, initially as a therapeutic one, to get rid of the suicidal instincts he felt. His parents sent him a typewriter in prison, he began to send stories – mostly set in jail, in some cases clearly autobiographical, in other surreal – to his sister who then sent them to small literary magazines. Jarrett Haley, the founder of one of these, Bull, helped Dawkins put together a collection of short stories and be represented by a literary agent, Sandra Dijkstra. Dijkstra managed to sell the collection of stories to Scribner in 2016. Dawkins divided the advance with Haley, who had helped him get the contract for the book; the rest of the money, a little more than 50 thousand dollars, was put into a fund for his children. So far they have paid school fees, textbooks, car payments and dental care.
After the state of Michigan sued Dawkins last October, Dijkstra blocked all payments from the publisher (including the second part of the advance, which should have arrived in the coming months) at the request of the state. The state then blocked the account that Dawkins has in prison, the one in which his family has always sent him 200 to 300 dollars a month and that the imprisonment uses to make phone calls, send emails, eat snacks and buy paper for write: in the last few months Dawkins has done all these things with $ 25 a month and will defend himself at the February 26 hearing because he cannot afford to pay a lawyer.
Dawkins will try to win the lawsuit against Michigan based on the fact that state law requires the court to take into consideration “every legal and moral obligation” that the detainee has towards his children or spouse. For Dawkins his children should not be punished for him. While waiting for the trial, he continues to write: he is working on a dystopian novel set in a subterranean prison where prisoners are kept in a state of hibernation.
Laws that force prisoners to pay the costs
Supporters of the laws that force prisoners to pay the costs of their incarceration say that all prisoners who can afford it should do so. According to some activists for the rights of prisoners, however, imposing these reimbursements can make rehabilitation more difficult, given that it limits the possibility of helping their families (and themselves, in case their release is envisaged at a certain point). These activists think that laws like the one in Michigan violate the Eighth Amendment of the American Constitution, which prohibits cruel punishments and excessive fines for those who have committed crimes. According to some legal experts, states should encourage activities among prisoners, rather than punish them for doing them.
The story of the publication of This was also generated other questions on moral issues. According to Kenneth Bowman, the brother of the man killed by Dawkins, a life sentence should not have the opportunity to write and publish his own stories, and the money he earned in this way should be used to compensate his family or finance a charity. Bowman’s mother, in an old New York Times article, had been less harsh: she said she had forgiven Dawkins and was glad that she had found comfort in writing since she could not imagine anything worse than life imprisonment.
The First Amendment of the American Constitution allows inmates to publish books for the principle of freedom of expression, but there have been cases where states have limited the ability of their prisoners to publish and be paid for their books. For example, the writer Malcolm Braly published his novel Air Time in 1967, two years after being released for good conduct, because according to prison department officials publishing it earlier would have violated the conditions of his early release. In many states prisoners are forbidden to receive compensation for writing truthful reports of their crimes: if such reports are published or turned into films, the proceeds must be donated to the victims or their families. In support of the perplexities of those who do not like the possibility for prisoners to write, there is the case of Jack Henry Abbott: in 1981 the Random House publishing house published In the Belly of the Beast, while he was in prison for having robbed a bank and other crimes; the writer Norman Mailer befriended Abbott and worked hard to get him out of prison, but as soon as Abbott left, he was arrested again for stabbing and killing a waiter.