By Christopher Zoukis
By Halloween 2004, Curtis Dawson had earned a Master of Fine Arts degree at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, but had also acquired a history of alcoholism and serious drug abuse. Months earlier, due to a worsening drug problem, he’d moved out of the home shared with his wife and their three small children. This night, he visited his family at his former home to have dinner together.
But instead of returning to his place afterwards, he headed to an off-campus neighborhood. For his first time ever, he smoked crack, and for the first time in years, drank alcohol. He put on a second-hand gangster costume, and brought along the handgun he had as protection against the drug dealers he increasingly frequented. By mid-morning, he had threatened a group of partygoers, taken a man hostage in a home invasion, and fatally shot another while trying to rob him.
A conviction for felony murder brought a sentence of life without parole. Within a year, Dawkins began writing short stories, almost all of them set in prison. A few were published in journals, to favorable reviews. Last July, the Scribner’s publishing house brought out a collection of Dawkins’ stories, The Graybar Hotel, for which he was promised a $150,000 advance.
And that’s where Michigan Treasury officials stepped in; they went to court in October and persuaded a judge to freeze payments to Dawkins’ agent, citing a state law which allows the state to recoup from inmates’ income or assets its costs to incarcerate them.
The state is seeking 90% of “proceeds from publications, future payments, royalties” from his work, as well as any money his family puts into his prison account. It says the total cost to incarcerate Dawkins thus far has exceeded $372,000, and its annual costs to incarcerate an inmate average about $35,000. Michigan last year netted about $3.7 million by collecting assets, such as damage awards from lawsuits or inheritances, from nearly 300 of its 40,000 inmates.
Representing himself, Dawkins opposes the state’s claim, pointing out he’s directed most of the payments from his publication into an educational fund for his children; he adds the state wrongly overlooks his obligation to support them. The state, however, contends Dawkins has no right to transfer earnings from his writings to his children. His children, with some justification, claim that they will be the most harmed by the state’s action, since they have been deprived of their father’s presence for most of their lives, and are now threatened with losing the financial support he wants, and has at least a moral obligation, to provide them.
Others argue Dawkins ought to be encouraged to pursue his writing, both for his talent and its part in helping him cope with his lifelong sentence. An expert on prison writing also warns states pursuing the literary proceeds of incarcerated writers could discourage them from writing. And, if the wider public is to understand prisons and prisoners, it’s highly likely those best equipped to convey those issues will be persons who have first-hand experience in those settings and with those persons – another reason not to discourage or penalize writing by those who best know the truths of incarceration.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.