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Win Bassett: Pens in the Pen

January 23, 2014

A former prosecutor reflects on wrongful convictions, Damien Echols's memoir, and the importance of prison arts programs.

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Image by Larry B. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

Damien Echols spent 18 years—half of his life—on death row before the state of Arkansas released him in August of 2011. Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr., became known as the West Memphis Three when, in 1994, they were convicted of the murder of three 8-year-old boys. Claims of their innocence inspired the acclaimed documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and motivated Johnny Depp, Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson to support efforts to overturn their convictions. The three sentenced teenagers, now men, made a deal with prosecutors approximately two years ago: if they entered Alford pleas (which allow a person to maintain their innocence while still pleading guilty, because the plea is in their best interest) and agreed not to sue the state for financial damages, they could walk free. In November Echols returned for the first time since his release to the state that confined him against his will for 18 years.

Nothing haunted me more during my tenure as an assistant district attorney than the thought of what happened to Echols—the removal of an innocent person from society. But in my days of disposing traffic infractions and prosecuting misdemeanors, the possibility of aiding a wrongful conviction arose only once. A Superior Court prosecutor asked me to create a PowerPoint presentation for what turned into a 10-week murder trial. I don’t recall much about the long days of clicking through an evidence slideshow and listening to cross-examinations. But I remember pondering how close—only a few feet—I sat from someone who might spend the remaining years of his life in a cell. That he might have strangled someone didn’t frighten me; that I might have a role in sending an innocent person to prison scared me to death.

“Immediately, [new inmates] stopped developing as people, because they’re not having experiences anymore,” Echols said. “They’re not having anything that makes them grow in any sort of way.”

Echols lived on the other side of this iniquity as he waited for his execution, but he didn’t visit the University of Central Arkansas in Conway to voice his outrage. Instead, he traveled to the school as part of its “Artists in Residence” series to read from his Times bestselling memoir, Life After Death, which he wrote while incarcerated. Echols’s book doesn’t discuss the facts of the murder case or his wrongful conviction. His memoir deals instead with two different stories—his rough childhood and his life among fellow prisoners waiting to die.

Echols started writing these stories to survive death row, he told the Log Cabin Democrat, Conway’s daily newspaper:

“Immediately, [new inmates] stopped developing as people, because they’re not having experiences anymore,” Echols said. “They’re not having anything that makes them grow in any sort of way. So they start to stagnate, deteriorate and decay inside. I immediately saw that I didn’t want to be that way.”

Echols’s writing also led him to his wife, Lorri Davis. She saw the West Memphis Three documentary at a screening in New York, and it left her with so many questions she couldn’t sleep. She wrote Echols a letter, and the resultant correspondence led to their marriage three years later. The husband and wife plan to release a collection of the letters, Yours For Eternity, in June of 2014.

Most prisoners don’t experience such romantic endings. From Atul Gawande’s report on the torturous effects of long-term solitary confinement to the American Civil Liberties Union’s that details the physiological impact of serving a life sentence without parole, experts describe how the American penal system has caused damage to a significant amount of the country’s population. Specifically, 2.2 million people currently reside in U.S. prisons and jails, and another 4.8 million people are on parole or probation, as Andrea Jones writes in The American Reader.

Writing classes at San Quentin State Prison not only reduced recidivism but created safe havens and interracial bonds…

Researchers have discovered, however, that creative art programs engage prisoners’ mental faculties to avoid the detrimental stagnation Echols observed in Arkansas. And such stimulation isn’t the only benefit. Larry Brewster, a professor at the University of San Francisco, testified before a California state committee last year that writing classes at San Quentin State Prison not only reduced recidivism but created safe havens and interracial bonds in an environment where “race lines are stark and prison politics requires that inmates remain loyal to their race.”

The Prison Arts Coalition, an organization that supports and provides resources for arts programs in correctional facilities across the country, reports that 42 states have such programs. A recent study on the costs and benefits of prison education initiatives, most of which encompass art courses that the Prison Arts Coalition supports, found that they save as much as $5.00 for each dollar invested with respect to three-year reincarceration costs. “[W]e estimated that to break even, such programs would need to reduce the three-year reincarceration rate by between 1.9 percent and 2.6 percent,” a Los Angeles Times opinion states. “Yet, we found that participating in such programs is associated with a 13 percent reduction in the risk of recidivism three years after release from prison.”

These programs have existed for at least the last four decades, and interest in writing instruction inside America’s prisons hasn’t waned since the loss of Pell Grant eligibility for state and federal prison education programs in 1994. VOX Press Inc., a not-for-profit arts organization in Oxford, Miss., announced one of the newest inmate writing programs at the beginning of November with its Indiegogo campaign. Founded by poet Louis Bourgeois and the late Oxford American poetry editor J.E. Pitts, VOX states that if it achieves the fundraising goal for its Prison Writes Initiative, the program will be the first of it kind in Mississippi to serve the state’s inmate population when it begins later this month.

This year may also bring a new trial for the man that went to prison for life—the one that sat a few feet from me during the murder prosecution in which I participated. In September of last year, the state’s Court of Appeals ordered one when it found the trial court erred in its evidence rulings. That man continues to sit in prison, according to the state’s Department of Public Safety, as he has since May 5, 2011. Should a court find him innocent, his time of confinement will be a fraction of Echols’s, but it still will have been far too long. “Today I had one of those brief flashes where I remembered what the sunset looks and feels like…. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve actually seen a sunset,” Echols writes in his memoir. “I have no need of Freud and his Oedipal theories; just give me a pen and paper.”

Win Bassett is a writer and graduate student at Yale Divinity School. He’s a former assistant district attorney and serves on the PEN Prison Writing Program Fiction Committee. You can follow him on Twitter @winbassett.

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