Through her storytelling ability, Loen Kelley helped shape how television audiences viewed crime in America. Now she has created a platform for criminals to tell their side of the story.
By Robert Simmons
Prison Writers reminds me that I am human…Loen and her volunteers treat us convicts with kindness and respect. They encourage us to be better people, and because we respect them, we listen. They understand that the carrot produces better results than the stick…When we get out, we will prove to the world that rehabilitation through the written word really does work.Jerry Metcalf, Michigan Inmate
Loen Kelley knows how to tell a story (check out her Quora profile).
As Senior Producer for many of CNN’s ‘true crime’ documentaries (and before that, as a producer for Dan Rather and the CBS news show ’48 Hours’), Loen was tasked with framing her television network’s ‘true crime’ narrative.
From 9/11 to the Virginia Tech Massacre, Loen helped shape how TV audiences perceived many of the real-life American tragedies of our time.
She told us stories about serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer, Edmund Kemper and John Wayne Gacy, domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, and celebrities like Aaron Hernandez and Natalie Wood. The list of human suffering is long.
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The thing about stories is that everybody has one.
Even History has a story, mostly told by the winners, who usually prefer to demonstrate how people fail society, rather than how society fails people. After Loen helped her network chronicle the state’s history of crime in America, she decided to create a platform to chronicle the People’s history of punishment at the hands of the state, in order for Americans to get the ‘whole’ story of so-called ‘American Justice’.
Loen Kelley has…untied the gags that have silenced so many of us, the voiceless, the outsiders, and given us back our freedom of speech.Charles Norman, Florida inmate
Genesis of the Prison Writers Project
Talk to Loen Kelley for two minutes, and you will absolutely forget that you’ve only known her for two minutes. She is, as prison writer Charles Norman says, the ‘real deal’.
Looking back, there are two stories Loen feels the most pride in being able to tell: the first involves she and her crew being allowed access inside the Bedford Hills women’s maximum security prison, where they followed several inmates for a three-week period, including an inmate who was able to make it out the front gate.
The other story was about Lisa Harris, who at 17 was convicted of helping kill her friend’s alleged rapist.
In order to protect her brother and her friends, Lisa took the blame, and received the first degree murder charge, which in Missouri, came with no possibility of parole.
Twenty-five years into Lisa’s sentence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “Missouri must offer another sentencing option” besides life without parole (for juveniles charged with first degree murder).
When Lisa finally walked out from behind Missouri’s prison gates, thirty years after walking in, it was Loen Kelley waiting outside to meet her. Loen stayed with her over the next few days, buying her some new clothes and other essential needs.
During her time interviewing prison inmates, Loen began to realize that even her mind had been influenced by the news media’s portrayal of crime and ‘criminals’.
As she began listening more intently, she started to believe that some might be innocent of their crimes; others were clearly over-charged for the crime they did commit.
Some had even bore witness to atrocities perpetrated by those paid to guard them. All this led her toward the realization that prisoners needed a platform in order to tell their side of the story.
Communication infrastructure theory posits that storytelling is central to the process of building and maintaining a community as well as effecting social change at the community level.(Kim, Ball-Rokeach, et. al.)
PrisonWriters.com – Applying a Little Communication Infrastructure Theory
Storytelling is the earliest form of human communication. From stage to cinema to television, books to ballads to neighborhood bars, storytelling resonates within every corner of our society.
Facts, usually devoid of context, fail to hit home like the emotional connection of a first-person account.
Through PrisonWriters.com, Loen has created a ‘Communication Infrastructure’ – an environment where community ‘storytellers’ talk about their neighborhood, which (in theory) can encourage a sense of belongingness, and instill a feeling of ‘collective efficacy’ meant to kickstart civic action.
Obviously, this particular ‘community’ is not designed to enact any meaningful changes to their living conditions.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that no U.S. communities, whether they be rich or poor, walled in or walled off, are designed to enact any meaningful changes.
Seemingly unnoticed is Incarceration as living proof that there is a serious structural flaw in the foundation of American society, and apparently beyond anyone’s comprehension is the realization that prison is merely a reflection (and a microcosm) of society at large.
To find cures for much of what ails human society, science has been allowed to run experiments on various kinds of animals, crowding them in cages, in order to collect useful data.
In our U.S. Prison System, where we naively shun and isolate ‘all that is wrong with society’, no one has ever bothered to collect any useful data – let alone seek any cure – for an illness that has clearly reached epidemic proportions; no useful research, that is, until now. Here are some of the observations Loen Kelley’s hired team of researchers and journalists have been able to uncover about our human condition.
Prison writer Antwan Johnson, like Thomas Jefferson before him, sees the inevitable conflict that ensues when coalitions form.
In his piece about gang culture within the prison system, Antwan speaks of the difficulty in retaining one’s singular voice (let alone forge any lasting peace) amid the existence of these factions. Invariably, smaller (and physically weaker) gang members incite confrontation simply because they have the automatic backing of those within their coalition, who have sworn loyalty to stand together, right or wrong.
In order to retain his ‘liberty’, Antwan has sworn off joining a gang, but reports that as many as 80% of the prison population is willing to discard their personal principles for the status of gang membership.
The Essence of Human Suffering
The paradox of human existence is our simultaneous need to feel both independent and connected.
Take away both, and we are, in essence, no longer human.
It turns out that our Federal, State, and Local governments are doing research on this very phenomenon, though until recently, they were not actually collecting any of the data.
Solitary confinement in prison is a controlled experiment in the total elimination of both human independence and connection.
Thanks to Loen’s prison writing staff, we now have research being conducted on this topic as well.
- Brad Simpson – Solitary Confinement Will Make You a Little Crazy. Period.
- Jason Walker – Solitary is Torture!
- Whitney Smith – Some Thoughts From Solitary
- Shavez Holden – F*** Solitary Confinement
- Mustafa Zulu – 10 Tips for Surviving Long Term Solitary Confinement
- Jeremy Busby – Another Suicide in Solitary: When is Enough Enough?
- Tyler Metzner – Here’s What Happens in Solitary
- Joshua Shadduck – 2 Weeks in Solitary and You Go Mental
- Austin Jakubowski – Solitary Sucks
- J.S. Slaymaker – 15 Years in Solitary Confinement and Look at Me Now
- Jason Walker – Legal Practice of Mental and Psychological Torture in Prison
Chris Dankovich explains the hierarchy involved in the underground prison economy.
At the top is the ‘gambling’ economy – a ‘Wall Street’ for the walled in – and Consumerism is also prevalent, as goods are sold in the commissary, or through free trade by individual ‘entrepreneurs’.
Always present in any economy is the selling of sex and addiction. Refreshingly, art still remains an important commodity in society, whether one is inside or outside a prison wall.
Kenneth Foster details the use of stamps as ‘community currency’, and how supply and demand affects its value on the prison market.
Ty Evans gives an excellent argument for legalizing all drugs.
He and his friends explain how the War on Drugs, meant to ‘dry up demand’, only shifts the “dope-hungry crowd” from ‘“one drug to another”.
When our government attempted to shut down the arrival of Columbian cocaine (by boat and plane), it not only encouraged the creation of eventual “overland smuggling routes”, it precipitated the invention of the “watered-down crack cocaine market”, plus the surge in “meth manufacture to fill the market void”.
More recently, white people have taken to heroin and cut heroin products once opioid “painkiller prescriptions have gotten harder to obtain.” If drugs were eventually legalized, Ty and his contributing writers (Mel, Mongoose, and Edgar Lee) would likely have jobs waiting for them at the Wall Street Journal or Investopedia, as Loen would probably not be able to afford them anymore (most of the writer’s salaries come out of her pocket – donations are welcome).
The antisocial behavior of criminals is a symptom of a deeper illness that is not only the cause of crime, but also the driving force behind untreated recidivism. The stated goal of incarceration should be to find programs or treatments that change the way that prisoners think, and then assists them in their transition back to freedom.Daniel Harris
Education has been proven time and again to reduce the recidivism rate in direct proportion to the amount of education a prisoner receives.Daniel Harris, Here’s How to Reduce Recidivism
Daniel Harris has several good ideas concerning rehabilitation.
He cites the positive affects of education on reducing recidivism, and feels that as prisoners achieve their educational goals, sentences should be reduced to reflect this effort. He knows that most criminals were subjected to severe abuse as children, and allowing prison officials to continue this abuse only cements the pattern of criminally ‘acting out’ in ways deemed inappropriate to society.
Daniel also feels that if a specific list of conditions for parole were stated up front, prisoners would be more hopeful, less stressed, and empowered to follow this positive path toward parole.
Currently, the prisoners are given no hope, and sit and stew in their own juices, waiting for a review that may never come.
Meanwhile, those with money to spend can hire a Parole Consultant, again reinforcing our skewed all-American ‘money is free speech’ perspective.
Finally, Daniel advocates for the creation of a “Transitional Release Center”, that provides free food and shelter for the first 90 days after prisoners are released, followed by an apartment with first and last month’s rent paid; he feels this gives parolees at least a puncher’s chance at achieving financial stability.
Other suggestions include waiving taxes and other payments for the first year. While this may cost taxpayers some money, Daniel argues that it would be much less than the $40,000 a year the state now pays to house a prisoner should they return, which many do in the current ‘rehabilitation’ system.
Seems like when Chris is released, he could have a job waiting for him in the Justice Department – of a government that starts putting people ahead of profits.
Chris Dankovich, in his Case for Rehabilitation, points out that different prisoners have different rehabilitation needs, and “barring differences in duration, petty thieves and serial killers are sentenced to the exact same circumstances…living conditions, and…rehabilitative services” (to the extent that any true ‘rehabilitative services’ even exist).
Having lived around convicts my whole life, I advocate separating them based upon intent (Are they predatory? Was it a crime-of- passion? Was it drug related?) and then by severity of crime.Chris Dankovich
Chris currently advocates for the rehabilitation of “Youthful Adult Offenders”, a group of which he is a member (he was tried as an adult for a crime he committed at age 15; he still has a minimum of 15 years to go on his 25-year sentence).
Most people don’t realize that the violation of property, which is burglary, is almost always punished much more severely than the violation of an actual child.Chris Dankovich
The Violence That Violence Produces
Highly prevalent, for instance, is the correlation between early childhood abuse and later run-ins with the law.
In order to lower the number of incarcerated in our society, access to healthcare could eliminate ‘warehousing’ civilians fighting addiction or mental health issues; in fact, when criminal behavior is defined as the symptom of some broader health issue, incarceration numbers may someday drop closer to zero.
America’s prisoner head count is 2,252,500 – one-and-a-half times the population of Manhattan, squeezed into an area one-fourth the size of Manhattan…If prisoners formed their own state, it would be more populous than 15 other states, and command five electoral votes – if they were allowed to vote.Ty Evans
Again, Loen and her staff are beginning to compile needed data on this subject.
- Dusstin Longtin – I Started Gang Banging in the 4th Grade.
- Heather D’Aoust – Heather D’Aoust was Raped at Fourteen, Weeks Before Killing her Mother
- Paul Anthony Brown – Paul on Death Row: I was a Witness to Murder at Age 10
- Frederick Paine – From a Childhood in Hell to Death Row
- Fontaine Baker – With This Childhood, Would You Be in Prison?
- Healther D’Aoust – A Letter to My Rapist
- Sheldon Johnson – My Childhood: a Verbal Fast
- Valerie Baker – I was Born with Heroin, Meth, LSD, and Alcohol in my System
Ty Evans (Indiana Correctional Facility prisoner #158293) explains how prison works.
This article is actually an excerpt from a book he wrote under the pen name ‘Ivan Denison’, called 5o Million Years in Prison. I just ordered it with one click.
Shouldn’t we, as Americans, be responsible for at least attempting to understand the systems we impose on ourselves? And if so, who better to inform us about the effect these systems have on people, than the people most directly affected by them?
Once we stop listening to any segment of the population, aren’t we heading down a road of not listening at all, and wouldn’t the end of that road wind up in a totalitarian neighborhood?
Andre J. Coe gets to the heart of darkness in American Justice with his article on the perpetuation of oppression through Incarceration. He is known by many as ‘El Presynt’, and you can find more of his writing (as well as other prison writers) on his MB6 website.
The Third Option Plan
We are a society on the move. It takes all day just to attend to ourselves.
When we have the money, we use it to have others attend to us: drive us around, cook us dinner, care for our older parents, watch our younger children – anything to ‘buy’ us more time for ourselves.
Thus it makes sense, as a society, that we would pay to lock up 2.3 million people who, in essence, need more attention than we have time to give them.
Many of those who have wealth will argue that forcing anyone (meaning them) to do ‘good’ is a constraint on their liberty, and robs them of the chance to dispense tax-deductible ‘charity’, in order to make themselves feel ‘good’.
This embodies much of the thinking that led us to where we are today, this ‘sticking place’ to which we have screwed ourselves.
In the end, all of us, by necessity, do need to take care of ourselves first, as much as we are able, and the Third Option truly believes that society can be much better structured toward that end.
If we posit for a moment the notion that all people are created equal, we can begin to understand human behavior as ‘natural’ to the environment that surrounds them.
This is because humans are #1 on the planet at adapting to their environment.
Humans, throughout their long journey, have been many things in order to survive, from killers to conquerors, rapists to pimps; we are all addicts, gamblers and thieves, the lot of us; but only when we are encouraged in that direction.
The Third Option mantra is Certainty, Fairness, Inclusivity, and Sustainability
When people do not feel a sense of Certainty, they will use what is around them, legal or not, to ensure their survival.
Fairness is a relative term, and in some ways is a measure of ‘Control’.
Societal conflict usually occurs when people have too much Control, and desire to retain it, or have too little Control, and thus have ‘nothing to lose’.
When people do not feel Included – when they are isolated, abused, shunned or even ignored – they will communicate their shame-filled feelings through outward acts often perceived as threatening or destructive; if we see all this behavior as in fact ‘self’ destructive, we can begin to piece together the ‘whole story’ of how violence begets violence.
The Third Option wants to grow Sustainable People
Sustainability. The Third Option wants to grow Sustainable People, and it begins with ensuring the soil in which they grow is never toxic.
It is all about healthcare and education, which would start prior to birth, and extend until death.
Parents would still have first dibs on raising their children, but with a much larger support system available around them (from childcare to counseling, etc.).
If a child does struggle, ‘rehabilitation’ would now become each citizen’s ‘second chance’, with the state assuming that all parties involved in initially raising this troubled child did not quite ‘get it right the first time’, rather than placing the full weight of the blame – through singular punishment – on the child.
‘Rehabilitation’, when imposed, would again be a process of healthcare (to treat addiction and other mental health issues) coupled with education – in the form of Associate Degrees in basic needs fields, such as healthcare, energy, communication, education, housing, agriculture, and the like.
Upon completion of these degrees, temporary housing and work will be assigned within Communities, which will always come with counseling support, and will hopefully lead to a transition to permanent housing.
The reverse of this process will also be in place: those losing a job can go back to temporary housing and continued counseling, with eventual placement in a different Community (if necessary), as all Communities will have the same system in place. This will comprise a new proactive (versus reactive) approach to our Federal Justice system.
We appreciate Loen Kelley’s efforts to shine a light on our otherwise opaque system of justice, at a time when our government does not appear ready to ‘do the right thing’ just yet.
Loen’s main concern for prisoners is to have the necessary resources and support in place at the time of their parole, to give them the best chance for a successful reentry into society. We will continue to make that a priority as well.
(For further reading, visit our article titled Incarceration Nation)