Thurs., April 10, 2008
CBS News Transcripts
May 9, 2004 Sunday
SHOW: 60 Minutes (7:00 PM ET) - CBS
Couldn't Keep It To Myself; Female inmates in Connecticut correctional facility find they're penalized by the state after having received acclaim for contributions to published writings
ANCHORS: STEVE KROFT
COULDN'T KEEP IT TO MYSELF
STEVE KROFT, co-host:
The book, "Couldn't Keep It To Myself," is an anthology of stories written by female inmates doing hard time in Connecticut's only maximum security prison for women. But the story of how this critically acclaimed book came to be, and what happened to the women who wrote it afterwards, is as interesting as the book itself. The women weren't profiting from their crimes; they didn't write about their crimes. They wrote about their lives and they did it so well, a few weeks ago, the literary organization Pen gave one of the imprisoned writers its most prestigious award. But what's truly amazing is the state of Connecticut's reaction, both to the publication of the book and to the award.
(Footage of bookstore and copies of book; photos of female inmates; Wally Lamb working at his computer; correctional facility; inmates; Lamb talking with inmates)
KROFT: (Voiceover) "Couldn't Keep It To Myself" hit bookstores 16 months ago. It was praised by the critics and enjoyed a modest commercial success, selling about 27,000 copies. The 10 inmates who wrote it had all committed serious crimes: Bonnie Foreshaw is serving 45 years without parole for first degree murder; Michelle Jessamy, 20 years for manslaughter; Carolyn Adams, five years for embezzlement. But every one of them has a story, a story that never would have been told if not for this man. Wally Lamb is the best-selling author of "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True." Five years ago, he agreed to volunteer at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut, after a rash of suicides and cutbacks in educational and rehabilitative services. Lamb's weekly writing workshop quickly became one of the prison's few success stories.
Mr. WALLY LAMB: And what happened is they began to see that if they wrote, sooner or later they would get to the tough stuff, the stuff that they needed to write about.
I want you to listen to Brenda's piece with paper and pencil and...
(Footage of Lamb talking with inmates in workshop setting)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Not only did Lamb teach them a valuable skill, he encouraged the inmates to write about their most personal experiences, things they'd never told anyone, let alone put down on paper.
Unidentified Inmate: I wrote about the time I tried to commit suicide.
(Footage of female inmates; three former inmates walking down stairs)
KROFT: (Voiceover) We wanted to talk to some of the inmates who were taking part in the program but the prison doesn't allow on-camera interviews. So we tracked down three former inmates who'd been in the writing program before being released from prison: Robin Cullen, Tabatha Rowley and Nancy Whitely.
KROFT: What were you in for?
Ms. NANCY WHITELY: Credit card fraud.
Ms. TABATHA ROWLEY: Assault. Assault first.
Ms. ROBIN CULLEN: I had a DUI crash, and in that crash, my girlfriend died.
KROFT: So what was the York Correctional Institute like?
Ms. WHITELY: It looks nice, but you're at the mercy of guards who treat you however they feel like at that moment. In prison, you can--you can lay there, and it's all right with them if you just lay there. So if you want to do anything positive, if you want to learn or change or grow, you have to fight to do it.
(Footage of inmates sitting at tables)
KROFT: (Voiceover) But the writing program was worth fighting for, providing one of the few opportunities in the prison for growth and rehabilitation.
Ms. CULLEN: What I watched was transformation. I saw women that just, you know, they came in damaged, broken. And they--they just started to open up bloom into beautiful flowers, brand new people.
Mr. LAMB: I'm not a therapist, but I could see that there was therapeutic value in the writing. People's body language began to change, people's level of articulation.
(Footage of Lamb talking with Judith Regan)
KROFT: (Voiceover) After a few years, Lamb was so impressed with the women's progress he read one of the stories to Judith Regan, his editor at Harper Collins.
Mr. LAMB: And by the end of this piece, she had tears in her eyes. And she said to me, 'Maybe we could do a book.'
KROFT: Did any of you ever think that you would end up being published writers?
Ms. ROWLEY: No.
Ms. WHITELY: No.
Ms. CULLEN: We talked about doing a book and we were picturing this little paperback thing stapled or with one of those spirally bindl--binders.
Ms. WHITELY: Yes.
(Footage of copies of book; Whitely, Cullen and Rowley; Lamb working at computer)
KROFT: (Voiceover) But this was the real deal. Harper Collins bought the book for $75,000, to be split among the contributors. After all was said and done, each of the women would receive $5600 when they were released from prison. Lamb made sure that state and prison officials were notified about the book deal, hoping they would embrace this unlikely success story. But he didn't hear a word until a few days before the books reached the stores.
Instead of embracing the women for their accomplishment, the state of Connecticut decided to go after them with a vengeance. The attorney general invoked a vaguely worded law that allows the state to charge inmates for their own incarceration. And the state sued the women, not for the $5600 that they'd made on the book deal, but for $117 a day for every day they would spend in prison.
(Footage of copy of lien)
KROFT: (Voiceover) One inmate had a lien placed against her assets for $913,000. Another for $473,000. And to make things worse, the papers were served by uniformed sheriff's deputies.
Ms. CULLEN: And my first reaction when I see this guy with the badge is, somebody's coming to take me back to jail.
KROFT: So the prison wanted you to pay them back for the time that you had spent in prison?
Ms. CULLEN: Yeah.
KROFT: How much?
Ms. CULLEN: My bill was, I believe, $139,000.
KROFT: Then you got one?
Ms. ROWLEY: Yes, I did. A bill for $143,000.
KROFT: Did you have $143,000?
Ms. ROWLEY: I've never had $143,000.
Ms. WHITELY: I say all the time, you know, if I'd known it was so expensive, I wouldn't have stayed so long, you know? But it's scary because I didn't know if they were going to take some of my pay.
Ms. ROWLEY: I feel the same way because I was told that they could take any asset you have.
(Footage of Blumenthal working in his office; correctional facility)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he had no choice but to enforce the law, which allows the state to recovery room and board from any inmate who comes into money while he or she is in prison or after they leave it, whether through inheritance, lottery winnings, proceeds from their crimes or financial windfall.
If you look at the facts, this is a case where people were punished for doing well, right?
Mr. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: These women were punished for committing homicide, manslaughter, drug trafficking, fraud. The action against them was simply to vindicate the public interest in collecting cost of incarceration when prisoners have the means to pay for it.
KROFT: What made the Department of Corrections, or your office, believe that these women could afford to pay for their entire cost of their incarceration?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: They were writing a book with a best selling, prize winning author. We felt that they might have the means to pay for incarceration.
KROFT: At the time that you filed the lawsuit, any investigation would have shown that they were getting $5,000 for this, and that the program itself was therapeutic and rehabilitative.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: In this instance, the irony is that the folks who knew most about publishing and movies thought this book would be a huge hit, a best-seller.
Ms. ROWLEY: Seems like they're trying to make us feel bad about what we did, that we're still, you know, bad people. You wrote a book. So what? You know, you're still a criminal.
Ms. WHITELY: I didn't spend my whole life doing positive things, you know, so the first time I do something positive, instead of people saying, 'Great job, you know, you did something positive,' they come and bring you papers.
(Footage of Lamb signing books; Pen headquarters)
KROFT: (Voiceover) For more than a year, Wally Lamb and the lawyers at Harper Collins tried, to no avail, to convince the attorney general to drop or settle the lawsuits. Finally, the literary organization Pen, which takes up the causes of persecuted writers around the world, became involved, suggesting that one of the still-imprisoned writers be nominated for a major award.
Mr. LAMB: The women had exercised their free speech, and then been punished for it. I--I had wanted to nominate the women as a group, but the rules said no, you must nominate an individual.
Barbara, one of her...
(Footage of Lamb working with inmates)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Lamb decided on Barbara Parsons Lane, a former housewife who is serving 10 years on manslaughter charges for killing her husband after years of verbal, physical and emotional abuse. She entered the prison in 1996 under a suicide watch and for two years, could barely speak.
Ms. BARBARA PARSONS LANE: When she was in the hospital, how did she get there?
(Footage of Lamb working with inmates)
KROFT: (Voiceover) But through the writing program, she's became a model prisoner, not to mention an accomplished writer.
Mr. LAMB: She has found voice and not only has she found it but she has been willing to share that with other people.
(Footage of gala)
KROFT: (Voiceover) And a few weeks ago, at a New York gala featuring literary lions from around the world, Pen awarded Barbara Parsons Lane a $25,000 prize in absentia for fighting to safeguard the right to self-expression. The award was sponsored by AE Hotchner and Paul Newman, one of Connecticut's most celebrated residents. But the story was far from over.
Just days after it was announced that Lane had won the prestigious award for exercising her freedom of speech, the prison responded by suspending the writing program, confiscating all computer discs used in the writing program and removing all information about the writing program from the hard drives of prison's computers.
Mr. LAMB: I was beside myself. I mean, somebody wins a First Amendment award, a freedom of speech award, and you say--you say, delete the writing? I mean, it just--it was--it was incredible to me.
(Footage of copy of letter; Blumenthal working at desk)
KROFT: (Voiceover) At Pen's behest, and with a copy of a prison memorandum ordering the writing class suspended effective immediately and the confiscation of the inmates' writing, we began asking questions and ask for interviews. Almost immediately, Connecticut officials began back-pedaling. Attorney General Blumenthal, who hopes to become Governor Blumenthal, promised a full investigation.
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: Destruction of property, particularly written property, is totally unacceptable, and we are investigating.
KROFT: So you condemn the behavior if--if, in fact, it happened?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: If there was destruction of files or writings or any prisoner property, I would condemn it and I would prosecute it.
(Footage of Theresa Lantz)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Theresa Lantz, the commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Correction, insisted she didn't know anything about it either, and now says that all of the inmates' writing that was deleted has since been recovered. She told us it was all a big misunderstanding.
Ms. THERESA LANTZ: We're very proud of the program, we're very appreciative of Wally Lamb's work and his volunteering to do this program for the last five years. I think it definitely has a rehabilitative impact.
KROFT: Why, After Barbara Parsons Lane won the Pen Award, why did the department try and shut down the program?
Ms. LANTZ: Well, it wasn't an attempt to shut down the program. There was no attempt by that staff or--or myself to shut down the program and terminate it, but basically to get everybody back together to talk about, you know, communication.
KROFT: So what we have here is a failure to communicate.
Ms. LANTZ: I think we definitely had a breakdown of communication, absolutely.
(Footage of gala)
KROFT: (Voiceover) Commissioner Lantz said the Pen Award had taken the prison by surprise because Wally Lamb never told them he had nominated Barbara Parsons Lane.
Ms. LANTZ: We don't like a lot of surprises. I'm going to admit that to you. And we want to make sure that we don't get surprised a lot.
KROFT: Wasn't this a pleasant surprise?
Ms. LANTZ: It was a surprise, nonetheless, because it was a very prestigious award. It created a sense of notoriety and/or prestige for the inmate. You want to make sure that, you know, that very thing is in place and that there's--that it doesn't create any issues or concerns.
KROFT: What kind of issues or concerns would it create for the prison?
Ms. LANTZ: Someone getting a notoriety and a--and a--and a high amount of an award, such as $25,000, we would just want to make sure that that individual wasn't in any way, shape, or form being compromised.
KROFT: Compromised in what way?
Ms. LANTZ: Her safety.
KROFT: Her safety?
Ms. LANTZ: Mm-hmm.
KROFT: So you were worried that other inmates might try and shake her down?
Ms. LANTZ: Well, that's always a possibility.
Ms. ROWLEY: I think that's a bunch of crap because--I mean, for one, I mean, we are--we came out with the book, OK? And people somehow think that we're getting all this money. There are women in prison that are part of the writers group. No one ever tried to do anything to them.
Ms. WHITELY: And if stuff like that's going on in their prison, maybe they should be doing some other stuff than worrying about the writing program.
Ms. ROWLEY: Uh-huh.
Ms. WHITELY: And secondly, how does closing the writing program stop people from asking Barbara Lane for money?
(Footage of Blumenthal holding a press conference)
KROFT: (Voiceover) A few days before our interview, Attorney General Blumenthal held a news conference to announce that the writing program had been reinstated, and the lawsuits seeking millions of dollars from the prison writers had been had been dropped after concluding that the money that the women had received from the book was minimal and had been earned through a rehabilitative program.
Ms. CULLEN: And now we're reading in the paper how proud they are of us. We're not feeling like they're proud of us. We're feeling like they're, you know, they're covering their butts.
KROFT: So you're saying that the Pen Award and the calls from 60 MINUTES and all of the--the really bad publicity didn't have anything to do with your decision to settle this lawsuit?
Mr. BLUMENTHAL: We knew we would face exactly the question that you've asked. 'Isn't it "60 MINUTES"?"Isn't it the Pen Award?' But my feeling was that we should do the right thing.
KROFT: In this case, the right thing requires each of the inmates who shared in the proceeds of the book to pay the state of Connecticut $500, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars the state had originally sought. And almost all of that money will go to the prison writing program, the same one the state tried to shut down.