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Life Inside

What I Learned From a Year of ‘Life Inside’

Publishing personal essays about the criminal justice system can be as complex as the system itself, writes engagement journalist Carla Canning.

A group of women in tan prison uniforms sitting in a room, watching a television show.
A group of incarcerated women take a break from sewing prison uniforms to watch Downton Abbey at the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility for women in San Diego County, Calif., in 2019.

Writing has always felt like the only way for me to make sense of things. Since first grade, I have been a journal-keeper, a note-taker and a list-maker. So it was one of those full-circle moments when I became The Marshall Project’s 2022 Tow Audience Engagement Fellow, with a focus on “Life Inside.” As I fielded questions from potential contributors, tracked and edited their submissions, and co-developed guidelines, I learned the unique challenges of publishing personal essays and “as-told-to” pieces about the criminal justice system.

While some Life Inside contributors experience the system through their work or their loved ones, most are currently incarcerated. Their daily lives are, by design, hidden from the public. There are the physical walls of prisons, jails and immigration detention centers; the tightly regulated visits; the official monitoring of phone calls and mail; and the threat — real or imagined — of retaliation by authorities. These conditions complicate the already-difficult task of blending journalism and creative writing.

After all, the key to producing any good piece of creative nonfiction is clear communication between the writer, editor, and, in the case of Life Inside pieces, the fact checker. While people in the free world can use the internet for research and news, most corrections facilities don’t give prisoners access to this resource.

A growing number of facilities allow electronic messaging through for-profit portals like JPay or ViaPath, but the messages can come at a steep cost per page. And these platforms often lack basic tools that people rely on to communicate effectively, such as subject lines for each message exchanged. On some of the services, previous messages aren’t built into replies. That means everyone has to copy, paste — and pay for — each paragraph at hand. To add to the confusion, messages often arrive out of sequence, or not at all, if they are flagged for what officials often describe as security reasons.

And of course, hundreds of facilities don’t give people inside the option of electronic messaging. Writers in those lockups must send in their work through the mail and use letters or phone calls to complete the editing and fact checking process. This can take weeks or even months.

No matter how incarcerated contributors submitted their work, it was a challenge to explain what makes a good Life Inside piece. I had to constantly remind myself that these writers didn’t have the option of browsing the site to see what we’d published before.

For the record, Life Inside essays are usually around 1,000-1,400 words, and they zero in on a specific story, moment or experience. Some are celebratory, like Bobby Bostic’s essay about what it’s like to be freed from prison after 27 years and Rahsaan Thomas’ account of graduating from college behind bars. Some are heartbreaking, like Rebecca Figueroa’s piece about giving birth in shackles and Jy’Aire Smith-Pennick’s letter to the man who was killed in the robbery he participated in. Some pieces detail how writers cope with confinement, like Tariq MaQbool’s meditation on his Muslim faith and Michael J. Nichols’ top 10 tips for surviving a year in the hole. Others are surprisingly fun, like Harlin Pierce’s essay about the unique way he plays chess and Lamarr W. Knox’s story of leaving Crip life to pursue crocheting.

When someone takes the risk of sending us a piece, it’s hard to say no to them. But there are some stories “Life Inside” can’t tell. For example, many potential contributors try to use their essays to prove their innocence. But, as it says in the guidelines, these claims don’t work in this space. It was tough to explain that we didn’t have the reporting resources to prove someone’s innocence, that we couldn’t re-litigate cases via personal essays.

I also found that many people wanted to write about the specific experiences — and misdeeds — of individuals in their lives, including relatives, friends, fellow prisoners and staff members. In electronic messages and mailed responses, I had to explain that Life Inside essays are a form of journalism. We check facts with the prison systems and people at the center of these narratives. We also have to protect the privacy of people who are not public figures, especially those who could be recognizable through their connection to the writer.

With all of these factors, the writing, editing and fact-checking process often felt slow, unnecessarily difficult and, sometimes, absurd. But wading through the stacks of mail and electronic messages showed me how much contributors value the opportunity. “Life Inside” gives contributors a chance to reinterpret the system, to reintroduce themselves as more than just a body behind bars.

Another major lesson I learned was that there are details about prison life that only people who have lived it can credibly write about. An essay about competing for shower time or bartering food might reveal a deeper truth about the writer’s environment. A person can wear the same clothes, eat the same food and work out in the same yard as dozens of others and still come out with something unique. These are the small truths you don’t learn from true-crime documentaries, reality shows and cop dramas.

When I was in school, being edited was a terrifying experience. Sometimes I felt like I had nothing good to say. That’s why I approached my work with Life Inside writers as a partnership. Instead of flatly saying no to people with limited professional writing experience, I tried to help them tease out what they really wanted to say, and I made an effort to explain why something was changed or deleted.

The more essays I read and worked on, the more I thought about the stories the media tells about incarcerated people — and who does and doesn’t get to tell those stories. No matter how dehumanizing their surroundings are, incarcerated people don’t cease to be human. My time with The Marshall Project and “Life Inside” helped me reestablish why I became interested in journalism about criminal justice in the first place: the people and personal stories that lie beyond each facility’s walls.

Carla Canning Email is an engagement journalist and former Tow audience engagement fellow at The Marshall Project. At the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, she created a website guide for people visiting loved ones incarcerated in New York State prisons. She recently traded in her lifelong New Yorker status for sunny Southern California.