Writer's Block

Texas prisons start barring book authors from inmate interviews

Stowers dismisses TDCJ's claim that authors' credentials are difficult to verify. "It's so easy for a legitimate writer to validate him or herself," he explains. "Send 'em the contract. That makes you as legitimate as any journalist."

He laughs at TDCJ's claim that it would deny interviews with prisoners to celebrities like King or Grisham. "They'd send a cab," says Stowers.

Author Casey is campaigning for TDCJ to open the door.
Daniel Kramer
Author Casey is campaigning for TDCJ to open the door.

When the Press wants to interview an inmate, a request from an editor on Press letterhead must be sent to prison officials along with a photocopy of the driver's license of the writer. In many cases, a member of the print media would prefer a phone interview over traveling hundreds of miles for one hour with a prisoner.

But unlike every other state, Texas prisons have no phones. Writers who want information from convicts must either see them in person or depend on letters.

About one-third of Texas prisoners are functionally illiterate, and letters to authors also would be read by prison officials. Spencer says, "The inmate I'm seeking to interview is afraid to write her answers for fear they'll get back to another inmate who has already had her beaten."

Spencer says in-person interviews are essential to her job. "If an inmate writes in a letter, 'I didn't do it,' that doesn't tell an author much. But if an author can observe an inmate saying, 'I didn't do it,' and that inmate has a smirk on his face…"

Celeste Johnson maintains her innocence, while Tarlton says Johnson manipulated her into murdering Johnson's husband. Casey and Spencer want to talk with them about the conflicts in the case.

They say prison or jail interviews by true crime writers have resulted in exonerating the innocent, convicting the guilty and providing closure for grieving victims. Lyons agrees with that but says, "Whatever function the books serve later on doesn't have anything to do with fitting our initial criteria."

Lyons says TDCJ is not trying to stifle freedom of speech or of the press. "I understand how important that is," says the former Huntsville Item reporter. Lyons covered TDCJ for three years and has done more than 50 prison interviews as a journalist.

Stowers says TDCJ has a point when it comes to writers of fiction, some of whom make requests to interview inmates merely for research. "I don't think the books Suzy and Kathy are doing should be disqualified," he says.

Lyons says she doesn't remember when or how the change came about. But it seems to have happened shortly after Todd's retirement.

Todd's replacement, Mike Viesca, declined to be interviewed for this article. Casey is livid with Viesca; she says he told her one reason for the change was "because we got paid."

A constant refrain from TDCJ officials is that book writers are in it for the money, while reporters have more noble purposes.

TDCJ executive director Gary Johnson carried a similar theme in a letter he wrote to state Senator Jon Lindsay, who represents Casey's district. "While reporters interview offenders with the intent of producing articles or segments that inform the public," Johnson stated, "an author personally profits from such an interview in the form of royalties and other types of payment."

"The argument about us making money is absurd," says Stowers, who notes that he also gets paid as a reporter to do prison interviews.

Casey and Spencer have started campaigns to get TDCJ to let them in the door. Several writers' groups and First Amendment organizations have joined the cause. But any change will likely come too late for Casey to meet her January deadline.

True crime books are generally complimentary of law enforcement, Casey says. "To leave an impression that there's not an openness, that legitimate press is being barred -- it's not a healthy thing," she says. "It leaves the wrong impression."

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