The Words Behind the Bars

By Jørn Otte

Last October, I had the unique and wonderful opportunity to hear Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver a prerecorded commencement speech to the fall 2014 graduates of my school, Goddard College. Abu-Jamal is a former journalist and activist, as well as a distinguished writer and Goddard College alum. He is also a member of America’s enormous incarcerated community, serving a life sentence in a prison in Pennsylvania. Feel free to learn more about him by reading his incredible book, Live From Death Row.

The United States of America has a population that accounts for 5% of the total number of people on planet Earth, however, the "Land of the Free" houses 25% of the world’s prison population. This means, that one out of every four incarcerated people, in the world, is housed in a United States jail cell.

While I will not mythologize the role of convict, nor defend any atrocities committed by anyone, it is a certainty that innocent people are incarcerated at an alarming rate in America. Though it can be argued that the vast majority of people who end up in prison do so because they were guilty of committing a crime, that does not mean that the law they broke was a just law, nor does it mean the sentence they received was a fair punishment to fit the crime. The reality is, persons of color are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in this country. Statistically speaking, if you are a young black male, you have a greater chance of being put in jail than a white person, even if you both commit the same crime.

Real and documented social inequalities are one reason why those in prison deserve a platform to be heard. These people are fathers, mothers, children, friends and loved ones. No matter what put them in the cell they now occupy, they are still human beings. They have lives worth learning about and stories worth hearing.

There are many organizations that exist to help give voice to the millions of people behind bars in America. Perhaps the best known is the PEN Prison Writing Program. “Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

Another wonderful organization that uses the power of words to work with at-risk youth is called Pongo. “The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a volunteer, nonprofit effort with Seattle teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. We help these young people express themselves through poetry and other forms of writing.”

There are many other programs across the country and around the world that are striving to allow the written word to be a vehicle through which people behind bars can express themselves, share their stories and heal. We at Duende wish to add our voice to helping the voiceless. We want to share the words behind the bars.

Our online literary journal is committed to giving voice to those stories by presenting a platform where previously or currently incarcerated writers, poets and artists can share their work with the general public. Duende is dedicated to showcasing quality writing from communities underrepresented in the U.S. literary landscape. The journal seeks to be a vehicle through which writers who are or have been incarcerated can share their writing and visual art with a wider audience. Duende seeks poetry, prose, hybrid work, and visual art coming from the minds and hearts of prisoners—current or former, in the U.S. or in other countries.

You are not forgotten and you deserve to be heard. We gladly accept your submissions via postal mail until March 25, 2015. Please send to:

BFA in Writing Program
Goddard College
123 Pitkin Road
Plainfield, VT  05667

This is our first effort at this endeavor, however it most certainly won’t be our last. Mumia Abu-Jamal was once quoted as saying, “Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It's my job to do the work for them because they have no one.” That is Duende’s mission as well. Please feel free to share this call with your local prison writing organization. Thank you.

Free Speech: Use It; Don't Lose It

By Kat Richardson

Twice a year, I cross an ocean and a continent to attend college. I travel more than 9,000 miles round-trip, and fly over hundreds of schools to get to Goddard College, in the remote hills of Vermont. This Fall, I land dead-center in the middle of a civil rights controversy when outgoing graduates choose Alumnus Mumia Abu-Jamal as their Commencement Speaker. Mumia was convicted of killing a Philadelphia Police Officer in 1981 and ordered to die, surviving nearly thirty years on death row until 2011 when his sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

I’m fascinated that the 2014 graduates have chosen Mumia to speak, and wonder first about logistics, until I learn he has already pre-recorded his words from prison. The possibility that people would try to stop his message from reaching us, doesn’t even occur to me, until news cameras show up. Suddenly, there are virtual death threats, bomb scares, and pressure from politicians and the Fraternal Order of Police to cancel Mumia’s speech. College officials reassure us that the graduation will happen, but some of the protocols have changed and with the added media presence, there’s something that just feels different on campus.

It’s graduation day and the joyous ceremony happens uninterrupted, three hours ahead of schedule.  A group of protestors assemble along the property line bordering the campus. Fortunately it’s a peaceful demonstration as I approach one of them. We begin a dialogue exchanging views and asking questions of one another. He thanks me for listening and I thank him for speaking up about what he feels strongly about. We acknowledge that we haven’t changed each other's opinions, but we know we were heard and there’s satisfaction in that. We shake hands two times before I walk away.  

Only two weeks later, in response to Mumia’s private speech for Goddard College, and a failed attempt to silence him, both the Senators and Representatives of Pennsylvania have introduced bills quickly voted upon, passed, and signed into law by the Governor, effective immediately.  It happened that fast. Bam. Bam. Bam!

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania criticizes these fast-tracked laws as “overbroad and vague and completely undermines the fundamental value of free speech found in the First Amendment of the federal constitution.”  In a letter requesting the Senate and Legislature to vote against it, the ACLU argues, “Both of these bills attempt to shut down public speech by people who are currently or formerly incarcerated by giving a victim, the district attorney, or the Attorney General the power to file a civil action against a person before the speech occurs if the conduct “perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.” This is defined as “conduct which causes a temporary or permanent state of mental anguish.” No one seems to acknowledge how far-reaching these laws can get, yet Governor Tom Corbett signs them anyway.

The fact that these bills have so hastily and sloppily become law in Pennsylvania, motivates me to project my voice louder and farther, lest I lose my right by not using it. The First Amendment was created with great foresight to protect future generations from suffering at the hands of a corrupt government. Taking free speech away from prisoners is an incremental step towards taking it away from other marginalized groups, or whomever else those in power don’t want to be heard. This is dangerous. It’s important that we hear everyone! Blocking prisoners from this basic right creates an umbrella of censorship over us all.     

Peace officers sworn to protect us are the ones who have initiated these bills and protested against Mumia’s right to free speech and in a sense, censoring our rights, validates for me, the ongoing need to advocate for the importance of upholding First Amendment Rights for all. I didn’t know when I arrived at Goddard, that I would learn the importance of protecting and preserving our free speech from a death-row survivor or the Fraternal Order of Police. In my own self-sequestered by privilege existence, I had not heard of either one of them until this semester.

Students and inmates are known to be outspoken and prone to protest against the establishment, but only at Goddard have I encountered police protesting against students and an inmate giving a prerecorded speech.  Thank you Goddard College: our new interim President Bob Kenny, faculty, administration, and staff for embracing us 100% with your support and protection. You held strong in the heat of scathing public insults and personal threats. Your strength and support during this very odd attack on the school’s reputation and attempts to discredit faculty and embarrass students, reinforces how pleased I am that this is the institution from where I will earn my degree. And Mumia, thank you for your powerful voice, and for not being afraid to use it.