John J. Lennon has built an unlikely career. As a journalist writing within the prisons he covers, he has spent the last decade offering a rare inside perspective into politics, health, and recreation behind bars. A recent feature, in the New York Times, covered how rising housing prices leave those released from prison with few options to avoid homelessness. He’s landed a book deal and a contributing editor position with Esquire. “Writing has changed my life,” he told New York Focus from Sullivan Correctional Facility. He mentors others who’ve found solace writing while imprisoned.
The agency that runs New York’s prisons is set to block Lennon and other incarcerated writers, artists, and poets from getting their work outside prison walls. Last month, the agency issued rules severely curtailing what incarcerated writers and artists can publish — and forbidding them from getting paid for it. The Department of Corrections and Community Supervision’s directive, effective May 11, establishes a stringent, months-long approval process for people in its custody to publish creative work, including books, art, music, poetry, film scripts, and other writing. It gives prison superintendents the power to block work from publication if it violates any of a number of broad rules — including bans on mentioning the artist or author’s crime and portraying the prison agency in a way that could “jeopardize safety or security.” The order wasn’t posted to the department’s website until after New York Focus asked for comment. The directive makes no mention of journalism, but the agency confirmed to New York Focus that it applies to features, op-eds, and other works for journalistic outlets. New York’s policy is new, but it falls in line with a trend of prisons aggressively censoring people in their custody.