New York’s Prison System Abruptly Halts a Policy Censoring Artists and Writers

New York’s Prison System Abruptly Halts a Policy Censoring Artists and Writers

New York’s Prison System Abruptly Halts a Policy Censoring Artists and Writers

One day after New York Focus broke the story about the censorship policy, the state department announced that it would suspend the rule impeding creative endeavors in prisons.


Stanley Bellamy was outraged when he learned that New York’s prison system had introduced rules placing onerous restrictions and lengthy approval processes for incarcerated writers and artists.

If not for his ability to publish, Bellamy might still be incarcerated. From prison, he published pieces about aging, and dying, in prison, the coronavirus crisis, and the urgency of reexamining lifelong sentences. These stories not only shed light on issues hidden behind prison walls but also demonstrated his own growth behind bars.

“It was because I was able to write and get published that I was able to raise these issues—and my profile,” Bellamy told The Nation. The 61-year-old strongly believes that these articles helped demonstrate to Governor Kathy Hochul that he deserved a second chance, leading to her decision to commute his 62.5-years-to-life sentence last December. Otherwise, he would have had to wait for his first parole hearing in December 2047.

On May 11, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) quietly issued Directive 4406, requiring incarcerated writers and artists to submit all creative works to the prison superintendent for approval before being sent to a nonprofit organization for publication or exhibition. Writers and artists would not be allowed to receive money, or even a nonfinancial prize such as a book, for their works. The directive defined creative works as including books, art, music, poetry, film scripts, and other writings. It allowed the superintendent to deny approval based on several vaguely worded criteria, including any depiction of the author or artist’s crime or victims, advocating rebellion against governmental authority, or portraying law enforcement or DOCCS “in a manner which could jeopardize safety and security.”

“This is censorship,” Bellamy said. “If that directive had been in effect [when I was behind bars], the superintendent would not have let me publish about Covid or the death of Val Gaiter [New York’s longest-serving incarcerated woman],” he said.

“For whatever reason, DOCCS is trying to return to the pre-Attica days,” he continued, referring to the 1971 uprising that led to a multitude of reforms, including educational and arts opportunities inside prisons. “They fail to recognize the mistakes of the past, then they’re going to repeat them over and over again.”

Bellamy hoped that advocates, both in and out of prison, would challenge the directive. But one day after New York Focus broke the story, the department abruptly rescinded its new rule. A spokesperson for DOCCS explained in a statement to The Nation:

It is evident that Directive #4406, Creative Arts Projects, is not being interpreted as the Department intended, as it was never our objective to limit free speech or creative endeavors. Accordingly, we have rescinded the directive effective immediately. The Department will engage interest stakeholders to revise the policy in order to encourage creative arts projects, as originally intended.

“If they have the aim of rehabilitation, it seems antithetical to limit creative arts,” said Moira Marquis, senior manager of PEN America’s FreeWrite Project.

That’s what Davide Coggins, a painter currently imprisoned at Mohawk Correctional Facility, thinks as well. “I personally like donating my artwork to places that need to raise funds, like charities for single mothers or senior citizens, and let them sell/raffle it off at will,” he wrote in an e-message to The Nation. “I use my artwork to do good, or I would if nobody made it difficult to do.” (Disclosure: Coggins sent the author an unsolicited large painting after the directive was issued.)

This is not the first time that prisons have attempted to limit or prevent people from publishing or receiving compensation for their work. Marquis noted that several incarcerated authors that PEN works with cannot get free copies of their own work. Some prison systems have attempted to garnish monies earned by incarcerated writers for the cost of their incarceration. And the lists of books banned by various prison systems spans more than 50,000 titles.

The directive, which targeted nonprofits, would have had a chilling effect on their ability to encourage and support emerging writers and artists.

Marquis views the directive as part of the troubling trend of censorship sweeping the nation. “We’re seeing across the country a steep rise in censorship practices from public schools to libraries to carceral censorship,” Marquis noted. “At root is the belief that ideas are dangerous and freedom of expression is a threat to public safety. If we allow that to stand in any forum—public schools, libraries, or prisons—we’re essentially giving government the authority to limit our most basic freedom: to speak our truth as we know it, which is the basis of a free society.”

Both Bellamy and Marquis were relieved to learn that the DOCCS had rescinded the directive. “This is a free speech right,” Bellamy said.

“DOCCS operates with opacity and relies on that to skirt public accountability for many of their policies and procedures,” Marquis said after learning about the rescission. She added that if the DOCCS were truly interested in crafting a policy to encourage creative arts, it should reach out to PEN and other nonprofit organizations working to nurture incarcerated writers and artists.

The quick revocation of the directive, she continued, “is a perfect example of how a little bit of attention and care from our communities can impact the lives of incarcerated people in a positive way.”

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