Monday, January 06, 2003

Women Publish From Prison
Victim Advocates Question Book Sales
Courant Staff Writer

January 5 2003

A month before its release, the latest book by best-selling author Wally Lamb is already sparking a discussion. But this time the conversation is not taking place on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

"Couldn't Keep It To Myself," is a series of autobiographical stories written by 10 women at the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic who were participants in Lamb's writing workshop.

The book details the women's lives and the events that led to their incarceration. It is scheduled for release at the end of the month.

It is also raising concerns among victims' rights advocates who question whether Lamb, who volunteers at the prison, and the women, should be allowed to profit from its publication.

"This says that crime pays. It shouldn't pay," saidDee Clinton of Survivors of Homicide. "They should be paying their debt to society; instead they are making a profit."

Clinton, whose 28-year-old son, Anson, was gunned down by a hit man in 1994 in East Lyme, said she wished Lamb and other writers focused as much of their attention on the victims of crimes as on convicts. She encouraged him to come to one of her group's meetings and to provide a workshop for them.

"I think it's absolutely outrageous. The money should go into the victim's compensation fund," said Clinton. "I hope the legislature takes a good look at this. It makes me cringe."

Lamb could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the book's publisher, HarperCollins, said the company does not believe this is a case of people profiting from their crimes.

"The stories written by these women do not discuss their crimes. These are stories written as part of a prison-initiated creative writing class," said Lisa Herling, a company spokeswoman. She said HarperCollins published the collection based on the quality of the writing.

Department of Correction officials would not comment on the book's publication, but said they would review the matter of proceeds paid to the inmates.

"Connecticut does have cost-of-incarceration legislation in place. How this legislation will impact the money received by these offenders will be determined by our legal counsel," said Christina Polce, a department spokeswoman.

It did not appear that Lamb violated any of the department's volunteer and recreational service directives, Polce said.

"The department does recognize Mr. Lamb's service to the agency as a volunteer. He has provided females at the York facility with an educational as well as a positive therapeutic experience," she said.

A source inside the department said correction officials are reviewing Lamb's contract to determine whether he violated any of its provisions.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Connecticut does have "Son-of-Sam laws" that prohibit inmates from profiting from the crimes. It bans them from earning proceeds from ventures such as books and movie deals. But he said his office would have to review the book to determine whether its contents fall under those guidelines.

"At this point, we don't have any of the specifics," he said.

Lamb is the author of "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True," both selections of Winfrey's book club. He began volunteering at York, the state's only all-female prison, in July 1999. He initially intended to hold one session. Two years later, he and the women had secured a publishing contract for their project.

Robin Cullen, who served three years for second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, said writing the book was not about making money. The workshop created a safe space where she could talk of about the loss of her friend during her drunk-driving accident, she said.

"It's really an act of courage," said Cullen, whose segment in the book reflects on the three Christmases that she spent in prison.

Cullen said none of the women attempts to sensationalize or specifically mention the details of their crimes, or makes excuses for themselves. The women, she said, talk about their feelings and circumstances such as broken homes, teenage pregnancy and poverty.

A copy of the manuscript was not available, but initial reviews have been positive. One writer described it as powerful and said Lamb "succeeds in giving the collection an intense, recognizable emotional core reminiscent of his blockbuster debut."

"Once people read it and feel the humanness of it, it will be understood because it is honest," Cullen said.
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant

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