Can You Write Books In Prison? (Secrets From a Prison Insider)

(This post may have afilliate links. Please see my diclosure)

Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask why you want to know if you can write books in prison. Your secret is safe with me. The answer is pretty straightforward, but the implementation is where it gets tricky.

Can you write books in prison?

Yes, inmates can write books in prison. Inmates can also publish books and profit from those books in prison as long as they follow the rules of the institution and as long as the books are not related to the crime for which they are serving time.

Writing books is actually the easy part. Publishing and profiting from your books is the more difficult task behind bars. So let’s tackle the writing part first.

10 Books Surprisingly Written In Prison

Authors Book Titles
Jean GenetOur Lady Of The Flowers
Gregory David RobertsShantaram
Bertrand RussellIntroduction to Mathematical
Philosophy
Jack Henry AbbottIn the Belly Of The Bear
Robert StoudDiseases of Canaries
Paul BuyanThe Pilgrim’s Progress
Miguel de CervantesDon Quixote
Alexander I. SolzhenitsynOne Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Marco PoloThe Travels of Marco Polo
Nelson MandelaConversations With Myself
Can you write books in prison? 10 books to prove you can.

How Can a Prisoner Write a Book?

Can you write a book in prison? Prisoners have huge chunks of free time to fill. While there are programs and education credits and other potential activities during an inmate’s day, there is still an ample amount of time for prisoners to write a book. Most prisoners also have access to pencils, pen,s and paper and at least limited access to a phone and computer. With these tools alone, an inmate can write a book.

As the book is drafted, some inmates might be able to quickly type pages into a computer and ask prison employees to help with printing off pages for review. If edited pages can then be typed or scanned into a computer, even better.

However, this is most often not the case. Some prisoners can send one page, or sometimes a few pages, at a time to outside friends and family, who can then type or scan them into a computer. The other option is to write the book while in prison but wait to publish it once the inmate is released.

Whatever you do, don’t be like this volunteer English teacher who smuggled a prisoner’s manuscript out of prison.

How Do You Publish Books in Prison?

Writing books is actually the easiest part of the process. Publishing them can be much more complicated. If prisoners have access to a computer, they can set up an account with Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), owned by Amazon. Then, they can upload their digital manuscript and publish their book with a few clicks of a mouse.

Yet, it’s often not so easy. Some of the common challenges with publishing books in prison might be:

  • Rules in the institution against “running a business”
  • No access to a typewriter, computer or printer
  • No help from the outside
  • No knowledge of publishing

The biggest obstacle on this list is the institutional rules, so let’s dive a bit deeper into that one.

Rules In the Institution

Every institution is different. Knowing the rules and how to loophole your way to a published book is the key. So the first step in publishing a book in prison is to find out the rules and study the rules to find the loopholes.

Once you know the loopholes, you can legally exploit the loopholes to publish your book. Emphasis on legally.

For example, many institutions have rules about inmates running businesses or what prisoners can send to someone outside of prison. It doesn’t matter whether what is sent is physical (like a printed manuscript) or digital, such as an email to a publishing company.

How Prisoners Can Publish Books in the Loopholes

First, it’s important to seek the counsel of an attorney who can help with learning the rules of the institution. They can also double as “help from the outside” if inmates don’t have any friends or family willing or available to assist with converting written pages into a digital format.

As a massive benefit, a lawyer can also likely assist in creating an outside contact, account, corporation or company in your name (or in the name of someone you trust) with which to accept any profits earned by the books. This might make the critical difference in profiting from a book written and published in prison.

Can’t afford a lawyer?

No worries, check out these two websites for finding a pro bono (free) attorney in your area:

If inmates do have friends and family willing and able to help, they can be a great resource for looking into the rules or helping with securing an attorney.

Best Resources for Prisoners Who Want to Publish Books

There are several resources worthy of looking into when a prisoner wants to publish a book. These resources will put you in contact with experts in publishing books for and by prisoners.

  • Contact Freebird Publishing, a publishing house that specializes in publishing books by prisoners.
  • Contact the Prison Foundation, a website that publishes books by prisoners for free reading and downloading. If an inmate is not concerned about making any profits and just wants to get their book published, this might be a good option to explore.
  • Contact PEN America’s Prison Writing Program. PEN provides “free resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for [inmate’s] writing.”
  • Read Can You Publish a Book For Free? for a step-by-step guide (with a video example) on how anyone with access to a computer can publish a book for free in a few minutes.
Red block with a question can prisoners make money in prison, for my article on Can You Write a Book in Prison
Can you write a book in prison?

Can Prisoners Make Money While In Prison?

Yes, prisoners can make money while in prison. Inmates who own businesses, real estate or stocks will continue to make money behind bars.

While there are often rules about inmates setting up, running and profiting from outside businesses while in prison, most of the time these rules do not stop inmates from actually making legal money.

However, if the inmate owes debts to creditors, child support, etc., any profits will be first used to repay these debts. The state of Michigan once even wanted a man who got a book deal to pay for his own incarceration.

Any leftover profit is technically able to reach the inmate while incarcerated (putting it in his or her account or “books”) or paid to an outside source or account until the inmate is released.

What About the “Son of Sam” Law?

When an inmate attempts to publish a book in prison (and especially attempts to earn a profit from their book), they might run into the “Son of Sam” law, which are really just any laws prohibiting inmates “from profiting from the publicity of their crimes.”

As long as an inmate’s book isn’t related to their crimes, the “Son of Sam” laws likely will not apply.

Do Prisoners Have First Amendment Rights?

Prisoners have limited First Amendment Rights, the right to free speech. The limitations generally revolve around how the book affects the safety of the facility. For example, prisons don’t want books written outlining staff schedules, spaces without cameras or maps on how to break out.

Who makes the decision to censor or not to censor? Unfortunately, this duty sometimes falls on a lower-level prison staff person, who may or may not be well versed in First Amendment rights, law or censorship.

The good news is that writing and publishing a book falls under the First Amendment. However, anyone who attempts to publish a book for money in prison is likely to be entangled in the battle between free speech and censorship. Another good reason to get an attorney on speed dial.

How Can Inmates Market Books In Prison?

Once a prisoner has gone through the lengthy and likely burdensome odyssey of writing and publishing a book behind bars, they most certainly will want to sell as many books as possible.

Here are some steps inmates can take to market their books:

  • Like with all the steps to write and publish a book in prison, the most effective (and obvious) approach is help from outside colleagues, friends, and family. An outside assistant, even a virtual assistant, could be a real game-changer.
  • If that’s not possible, access to a computer is paramount. Blogs, online book tours and social media are ideal ways an inmate can market a book. But that assumes an inmate has access to a computer, these tools available and knows how to use them.
  • Letters mailed out take time but could possibly be used to promote the book to gain PR and boost sales. Read this article by Christopher Zoukis, for some additional ways inmates can market books.

Conclusion

Inmates can certainly write books while serving their sentences. However, institutional rules, willy-nilly censorship and miles of red tape can often stand in the way of an inmate writing, publishing and earning income from their books.

Organizations like Freebird Publishing, Prison Foundation, and PEN – along with a network of personal, professional, and legal support – can tip the scales in favor of successful publishing.

What to read next: