Acclaimed prison writing program led by author Wally Lamb now under investigation
The program has been suspended amid disputes over payment and charges of bullying
By Daniela Altimari
The Hartford Courant
EAST LYME, Conn. — An acclaimed writing program for female prisoners at York Correctional Institution led by bestselling author Wally Lamb has been suspended after efforts to publish a new anthology of the women’s essays broke down amid disputes over payment and charges of bullying.
“You Don’t Know Me: The Incarcerated Women of York Prison Voice Their Truths,” the third collaboration between Lamb and the women, had been scheduled for release in October.
The book is now “on hold,” said Joette Katz, a lawyer representing Lamb in a lawsuit filed this spring by two of the women. It may never be published, although an undisclosed number of advanced reading copies have already been printed.
The discord threatens to undermine a partnership that began in 2003 with publication of the first anthology of autobiographical essays, “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters.” That book, issued by HarperCollins, a top publishing house, became a runaway success after it was featured on “60 Minutes.”
By contrast, “You Don’t Know Me” fetched a modest $20,000 when it was purchased last year by Counterpoint Press, a small publishing house based in Berkeley, Calif., that specializes in “fresh, cutting-edge” literary voices in a variety of genres. The 14 women who contributed essays were to receive about $1,400 each, Lamb wrote to the group in a May 2018 email. “Congratulations, writers!” he said.
But a series of emails between Lamb and the collaborators that form the basis of the lawsuit detail how clashes over payment, concerns the women’s stories were being distorted and a difficult publishing market made the book a tougher project than the first two anthologies.
Lamb was an English teacher at Norwich Free Academy when his first novel, “She’s Come Undone,” was published in 1992. The book was an enormous hit after it was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
In 1999, Lamb began leading a writing workshop at York, which is located in the Niantic section of East Lyme and is the state’s only prison for women. He edited two collections of autobiographical essays written by the women in his class, “Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Testimonies from Our Imprisoned Sisters” and “I’ll Fly Away: Further Testimonies from the Women of York Prison.”
Chandra Bozelko, a former inmate who contributed an essay to the new book, praised the work Lamb has done, on a voluntary basis, to highlight the plight of incarcerated women. But, she said, “this last book distorted everything the program was about and what was supposed to be achieved by women telling their stories. The behavior that he has shown toward the contributors challenges the narrative.”
Bozelko, a Princeton graduate, columnist and freelance journalist, is one of the two women suing Lamb. The Department of Correction is also investigating her claims.
Lamb, who lives in Mansfield, was not available for an interview, according to Katz. But in a lengthy email to the contributors in early March, the author expressed frustration.
“In all honesty, my exchanges with some of you have left me feeling fed up, discouraged, and disrespected,” he wrote. “When I committed to editing and publishing a third volume of work by past and present members of the York workshop, I handed you the opportunity to speak to a wider audience and ?— ideally ?— to be agents of change at a rare time when the country is increasingly receptive to prison reform. I confess that I did not expect to be blindsided by what, in my opinion, is frivolous hassling, cajoling, and self-interested complaining.”
Katz described Lamb as a good-hearted volunteer motivated solely by a desire to help incarcerated women find their voices.
“This is something he’s done as a labor of love,” said Katz, a former state Supreme Court justice and commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families who is now a managing partner at Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford.
The lawsuit, Katz added, is “a classic case of no good deed goes unpunished.”
‘Dial down the hysteria’
Another contributor to the book, Tracie Bernardi of New Britain, is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Bernardi, who spent seven years in solitary confinement related to her role in a 1993 gang-related murder in Waterbury before her release in 2015, expressed disappointment with the $1,400 advance she was to receive for her essay. She also objected to Lamb’s plan to donate all potential royalties generated by the book to the state victim’s advocate’s office and a college program at York run by Wesleyan University, although she said Monday that she supports giving both groups a portion of the proceeds.
In February, Bernardi raised concerns about the accuracy of Lamb’s editing of her chapter and requested revisions.
Lamb responded in an email to Bernardi that “it’s way too late to make changes in chapters that were read in their entirety and signed off on.” He said he could not “unprint books or indulge people’s unsubstantiated fears.”
“In my opinion, you all need to dial down the hysteria and muster up a little gratitude and humility.”
Bozelko, who served six years in prison on charges related to identity theft, contributed a chapter on the indignities of prison food. Her working relationship with Lamb began to sour earlier this year, after she asked Lamb for a copy of the book’s contract and inquired about payment when she received an advance copy of the book in the mail. “No one has been paid and no one has viewed a contract despite repeated follow-up attempts. I have spoken with other women in the book and they are equally concerned about this,” she wrote.
Lamb replied that no contract had been signed yet. He also said he hoped Bozelko was “not fomenting dissatisfaction among the other contributors.”
In the email to all of the contributors in early March, Lamb said the payments were being held up because of “the extended contractual negotiation between lawyers who represent the publisher and those who represent my literary agent. I truly regret that I have been unable to expedite this process as I know you have been counting on receiving your money.”
But tensions between Bozelko and Lamb continued, according to the the emails, before she finally wrote him April 1 saying she planned to file a lawsuit. Bozelko and Bernardi say they have still not been paid.
Lamb ready to move on
Katz, Lamb’s attorney, filed a motion Friday asking a judge to dismiss the case. The claims made by Bernardi and Bozelko are “based entirely on threadbare, conclusory allegations, not supported by facts but by the plaintiff’s unsubstantiated assertions that the defendants were out to take advantage of them,” the motion states. “At most, [the] ... allegations amount to complaints of rude behavior, which are not actionable under Connecticut law.”
Andrew Zeitlin, another Shipman & Goodwin attorney who is also representing Lamb, said the author was motivated to start the writing program by a desire to help the women rebuild their lives. Lamb has long been a champion of criminal justice reform; the advance reading copies of “You Don’t Know Me” contain a dedication to former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his wife, Cathy Malloy, who were also strongly supporters of such changes.
“From Wally’s perspective, the writing program doesn’t exist to publish these books,” Zeitlin said. “The writing program exists so the women can write about their past, present and future lives for rehabilitative purposes.”
Bozelko agrees Lamb lent his power and prestige to the prison writing project and received no financial gain. But, she noted, he benefited in other ways.
“This isn’t being done out of complete selfless love for the downtrodden women,” Bozelko said.
Correction spokeswoman Karen Martucci said it is unclear how long the department’s investigation will take. “We have temporarily suspended the writing program at York Correctional Institution pending an investigation,” she said. “In an effort to ensure that offenders have provided consent to having their written work shared publicly, the agency is reviewing its practices and recommending improvements in hopes of avoiding any future misunderstandings.”
Martucci said Lamb has “no history of complaints or issues working with the female offenders.”
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Lamb signaled months ago that he is ready to move on. He told the women who contributed to the book that he is juggling multiple projects — a new novel and an HBO production of an earlier work — with teaching commitments and family demands, including a son in prison.
“I’m coming closer to making the decision to end my participation in the writing program,” Lamb told Bernardi earlier this year, according to the court filing. “The hassle has become less and less worth the sacrifices I’ve made and the gifts of time, energy and support I’ve given.
“I’m not done yet, but I’m close," he concluded. “All good things come to an end, right?”
©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)