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Books Behind Bars: Prison Writings OK'ed in NC

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on March 10, 2010 2:00 PM

On Monday, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina Legal Foundation announced a settlement with the North Carolina Department of Correction allowing inmates to write and seek publishers for their work without interference from prison staff. The suit was initiated when the ACLU took up the case of Victor L. Martin, charging he had been denied his First Amendment rights after staff members at Raleigh's Central Prison confiscated a 310-page handwritten manuscript for a novel titled Redemption Thru Peace. The lawsuit claimed the manuscript was destroyed.

As reported by the News Observer, according to prison officials, Martin's work ran counter to the law prohibiting inmates from running businesses. Prison spokesman Keith Acree told the News Observer that the prison had agreed to settle to avoid the costs of litigation. He also claimed the manuscript was returned to Martin. The settlement includes a payment by the Department of Correction for $10,000 in damages and attorneys' fees and an agreement to overturn 10 writing-related disciplinary infractions against Martin. In return, the ACLU-NCLF dropped its lawsuit.

Under the new Department of Corrections policy, prisoners may write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, music and cartoons, among other forms of writing. Inmates may not receive any compensation for their work.

Prison literature has a long and varied history and includes incarcerated authors such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Emma Goldman and Nelson Mandela. On the negative side of the ledger are writings by the Marquis de Sade and Mein Kampf.

In 1977, the first "Son of Sam Law" was passed in New York prohibiting prisoners from profiting by the story of their crimes, either through writings or other mediums such as film. Although the original law was found to be unconstitutional, later more carefully drafted laws in several states have survived constitutional scrutiny. 

Victor Martin's books have had several publishers. One of them, Marcenia Waters of Charlotte, N.C., told the News Observer a few years ago she spent $4,000 of her own money to print 3,000 copies of a Martin book, Unique's Ending. At the time of the interview, Waters said Martin had not yet made any money from the book, but planned to donate any profits to charity.

Martin, incarcerated on multiple theft convictions, is due to be released in 2018.

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