'Couldn't Keep It To Myself'

Prison Writing Workshop Leads To Award-Winning Book

"Couldn't Keep It To Myself" is an anthology of stories written by female inmates at 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, is as interesting as the book itself.

The women weren't profiting from their crimes. They didn't write about them. Instead, they wrote about their lives.

And they did it so well that just a few weeks ago, the PEN literary organization 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 itself, and to the award. Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.

"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; and Carolyn Adams, 5 years for embezzlement.

But every one of them has a story, a story that never would have been told if not for best-selling author Wally Lamb, who wrote, "She's Come Undone" and "I Know This Much Is True."

Five years ago, Lamb agreed to volunteer at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Conn., 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.

"What happened is that 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," says Lamb.

Not only did Lamb teach them a valuable skill, he encouraged the inmates to write about their most personal experiences - things they never told anyone, let alone put down on paper.

60 Minutes wanted to talk to some 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 had been in the writing program before being released from prison: Robin Cullen, Tabatha Rowley and Nancy Whitely.

Whitely served time for credit-card fraud, Rowley for assault and Cullen for a DUI crash that killed her girlfriend.

What was the York Correctional Institute like?

"It looks nice, you know? But you're at the mercy of guards who treat you however they feel like at that moment," says Whitely. "In prison 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."

The writing program was worth fighting for, providing one of the few opportunities for growth and rehabilitation.

"What I saw was transformation. I saw women that just came in damaged, broken," says Cullen. "And they just started to open up and bloom into beautiful flowers. Brand new people."

"I'm not a therapist. But I could see that there was therapeutic value in the writing," says Lamb. "People's body language began to change. People's level of articulation."

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.

"And by the end of this piece, she had tears in her eyes. And she said to me, 'Maybe we could do a book,'" says Lamb.

The former inmates, however, say they never thought they would end up being published writers.

"We talked about, like, doing a book. And we were picturing this little paperback thing stapled or with one of those spirally binders," says Cullen.

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 $5,600 dollars when they were released from prison.

Lamb made sure that prison and state 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 $5,600 that they had made on the book deal, but for $117 a day, for every day they would spend in prison.

One inmate had a lien placed against her assets for $913,000. Another for $473,000. And to make things worse, uniformed sheriff's deputies served the papers.

"My first reaction when I see this guy with the badge is somebody's coming to take me back to jail," says Cullen. "My bill was, I believe, $139,000."

"I always say if I'd known it was so expensive, I wouldn't have stayed so long," says Whitely. "But it's scary. Because I didn't know if they were gonna take some of my pay."

"I was told that they could take any asset you have," says Rowley, whose bill was $143,000.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he had no choice but to enforce the law, which allows the state to recover 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.

"These women were punished for committing homicide, manslaughter, drug trafficking, fraud," says Blumenthal. "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."

What made the departments believe that these women could afford to pay for the entire cost of their incarceration? "They were writing a book with a best-selling, prize-winning author," says Blumenthal. "And we felt that they might have the means to pay for incarceration."

"Seems like they're trying to make us feel bad about what we did," says Rowley. "That we're still, you know, bad people. You wrote a book, so what? You know, you're still a criminal."

"I didn't spend my whole life doing positive things, you know," says Whitely. "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."

For more than a year, 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.

"The women had exercised their free speech and then been punished for it," says Lamb. "I had wanted to nominate the women as a group. But the rules said no, you must nominate an individual."

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, she could barely speak.

But through the writing program, she's become a model prisoner, not to mention an accomplished writer. "She has found her voice," says Lamb. "And not only has she found it, but she had been willing to share that with other people."

And a few weeks ago, at a New York gala featuring literary lions from around the world, PEN awarded Lane a $25,000 prize in absentia for fighting to safeguard the right to self-expression. The award was sponsored by A.E. 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 the prison's computers.

"I was beside myself," says Lamb. "I mean, somebody wins a First Amendment award, a freedom of speech award, and you say delete the writing? I mean, it was, it was incredible to me."

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, 60 Minutes began asking questions and asking for interviews.

Almost immediately, Connecticut officials began back-pedaling. Blumenthal, who hopes to become governor, promised a full investigation.

"Destruction of property, particularly written property, is totally unacceptable. And we are investigating it, to determine whether it happened and what should be done about it," says Blumenthal. "If there was destruction of files or writings or any prison property, I would condemn it. And I would prosecute it."

Theresa Lantz, the commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Correction, insists that she didn't know anything about it either -- and now says all of the inmates' writing that was deleted has since been recovered. She told 60 Minutes it was all a big misunderstanding.

"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," says Lantz.

Then why did the department try to shut down the program after Lane won the PEN award?

"Well, it wasn't an attempt to shut down the program. There was no attempt by that staff or myself to shut down the program and terminate it," says Lantz. "But basically, to get everybody back together to talk about, you know, communication."

So was there a failure to communicate? "I think we definitely had a breakdown of communication. Absolutely."

The commissioner told 60 Minutes the PEN award took the prison by surprise, because Lamb never told them he had nominated Lane.

"We don't like a lotta surprises. I'm gonna admit that to you. And we wanna make sure that we don't get surprised a lot," says Lantz.

But wasn't it a pleasant surprise? "It was a surprise, nonetheless, because it was a very prestigious award, as you said. It created a sense of notoriety and or prestige for the inmate," says Lantz. "You wanna make sure that, you know, that everything is in place and that there's, it doesn't create any issues or concerns."

What kind of issues or concerns would it create for the prison? Lantz said: "Someone getting -- a notoriety and a high amount of an award, such as $25,000, we would just wanna make sure that that individual wasn't in any way, shape or form, being compromised."

Lantz added that it was "her safety" that could be compromised by other inmates. "That's always a possibility," she says.

But the writers disagree.

"I think that's a bunch of crap. We came out with the book," says Rowley. "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."

"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," adds Whitely. "And secondly, how does closing the writing program stop people from asking Barbara Lane for money?"

A few days before our interview, 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 dropped, after concluding that the money the women had received from the book was minimal, and had been earned through a rehabilitative program.

"And now we're reading in the paper how proud they are of us," says Cullen. "We're not feeling like they're proud of us. We're feeling like they're, you know, they're covering their butts."

Kroft asked Blumenthal if the PEN award, calls from 60 Minutes and the bad publicity had anything to do with his decision to settle the lawsuit.

"We knew we would face exactly the question that you've asked," says Blumenthal. "Isn't it 60 Minutes? Isn't it the PEN award? But my feeling was that we should do the right thing."

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 hundreds of thousands of dollars the state had originally sought. Almost all of that money will go to the prison writing program, the same one the state tried to shut down.