A New Literary Prize Taps a Jury Living Behind Bars

Over the next six months, a jury of inmates in prisons across six states will be able to read and debate books, then vote on the winner of a new award, the Inside Literary Prize.

The initiative, announced on Monday, was founded by Freedom Reads, a nonprofit that builds libraries in and supplies book to prisons; the Center for Justice Innovation, an organization that provides resources and support to underserved communities; and the National Book Foundation, which hosts the National Book Awards, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States.

The goal of the award, according to Reginald Dwayne Betts, the founder and chief executive of Freedom Reads, is to create a way for incarcerated people to meaningfully participate in the national cultural conversation.

“Being able to say that this is the dopest book this year, chosen by these men and women still in prison, is ultimately about saying that their lives matter,” he said.

The award has precedent abroad. Last December, prisoners in France took part in a new, government-sponsored book prize called the Goncourt des détenus (the inmates’ Goncourt), an offshoot of the country’s highest literary honor. Sarah Jollien-Fardel’s “Sa Préférée” (or “His Favorite”), a novel about a woman grappling with the trauma of her father’s abuse, was the winner among 15 finalists.

Coverage of that prize — specifically, a story in this newspaper — inspired the Inside Literary Prize, said Lori Feathers, a bookstore owner and a literary podcaster. On Dec. 16, a day after the article was published, Feathers sent the piece to a friend at the Center for Justice Innovation, asking if something like the inmates’ Goncourt could be replicated in America.

“I referred to this as a ‘quixotic thought’ in my email,” Feathers said. Soon, she was connected with Ruth Dickey, the executive director of the National Book Foundation, and to Betts, of Freedom Reads. They got to work bringing her brainchild into fruition.

Questions, of course, soon followed. Which books would be nominated? (Only paperback books because most prisons ban hardcovers, which may conceal contraband.) What prisons and libraries would participate? (Those that the prize organizers already had relationships with and others that responded to an open call.) And who is eligible to judge? (The jury will be constituted of up to 25 inmates from each of the 12 participating facilities.)

Those answers came relatively easily, thanks in large part to the infrastructure and connections that Freedom Reads, the center and their supporters already had with many state department of corrections and prisons.

Betts — whose accolades include a MacArthur fellowship, an American Book Award and an N.A.A.C.P. Image Award — believes that the Inside Literary Prize holds greater significance than other traditional laurels of literary achievement.

“Freedom begins with a book,” he said.

The winner will be announced in June 2024.

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