Mass Incarceration

Bell Gale Chevigny (1936-2021): Critical Thinking and Grace

Professor and activist Bell Gale Chevigny (1936-2021) remained a central determine and mentor for PEN America’s Jail and Justice Writing Program since its founding within the early Nineteen Seventies. All through her life, Bell taught in prisons, advocated for instructional alternatives for incarcerated communities, and promoted the work of writers in jail all through the nation. Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing (Arcade Publishing), her edited quantity revealed in 1999 and reprinted in 2011, represents only a fraction of what she impressed in her college students and her tireless volunteer work as a part of PEN America’s Jail Writing Committee.

Throughout December 2022’s Break Out, an annual celebration honoring winners of the PEN Jail Writing Awards, the Jail and Justice Writing workers paid tribute to Chevigny with a video celebrating her life and her service to incarcerated writers. The inspiring memorial essay beneath was written by co-committee member Susan Rosenburg and browse in Chevigny’s honor as effectively. The essay has been reprinted from Variations on an Undisclosed Location, the 2022 Jail Writing Awards anthology.

The visiting room for demise row prisoners in Huntsville, Texas, is hardly crammed with laughter and inventive power. The virtually empty cellphone strains for San Quentin’s “row” prisoners are devoid of vigorous dialogue about poetic varieties. However when Bell Gale Chevigny confirmed up, the power modified, dialog ensued, creativity pulsed. 

Not many individuals in any sphere of life are prepared to go to demise row. Bell made the troublesome cross-country journeys usually, advocating for the lives of individuals serving time, encouraging the writers amongst them, and combating fiercely to have their works revealed, their voices heard. In her groundbreaking publication, Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, revealed in 1999 and republished in 2011, she writes about these on demise row: 

“Although from a sure vantage all of us sit on demise row, a few of us know this higher than others. The condemned battle for bodily, psychological, emotional, and ethical survival—and typically progress—like different convicts. However, like saints and existential philosophers, additionally they face the rigorous non secular check of creating annihilation their acquainted whereas remaining human.”

Bell was clear-eyed in regards to the horrible circumstances that lead individuals to demise row, and she or he was deeply towards the demise penalty. She additionally understood and noticed the inventive explosion coming from behind the partitions as a method of progress, change, and in the end, redemption. 

To advertise the writing and work of these buried alive on demise row, relegated to years of solitary confinement, denied parole, and residing within the hell of U.S. prisons, Bell grew to become a founding member of PEN America’s Jail Writing Program. At PEN, she helped create the annual Prison Writing Contest, the competition that produces this anthology, and chaired the committee tasked with studying and judging 1000’s of contest submissions annually. The committee conferences and the competition judging have been raucous affairs. The discussions usually started with everybody’s biases and subjective tastes coming to the fore. But Bell discovered methods to at all times deliver us again to the standard of the work and the content material. On the finish of each determination or suggestion, Bell would increase her hand and say, “I’ve yet one more factor.” Typically she’d ask, “This author goes for parole, can everybody right here write a letter in assist of them?” Different instances she’d urge, “Here’s a petition in regards to the banning of literature or a specific guide. Can everybody signal it?” At different instances, she’d command, “This author is within the gap as a result of their work was revealed. We have to write letters to the warden about it!”

Bell’s advocacy and compassion, her understanding of how the punishment system works to destroy inventive spirits, was unceasing. Through the years, Bell labored tirelessly to advertise the writing of prisoners as writing price studying, participating, and finding out by everybody—not simply these behind the partitions.

Bell Gale Chevigny taught literature inside prisons, and she or he constructed networks with others who have been doing extraordinary issues in relationship to prisoners and their particular person lives lengthy earlier than the idea of mass incarceration grew to become a subject of nationwide discourse. Bell linked with individuals like Buzz Alexander, who based the Jail Artistic Arts Program (PCAP) on the College of Michigan, Hettie Jones, who headed PEN’s Jail and Justice Writing program and taught writing for years at Bedford Hills girls’s jail, in addition to Gara LaMarche, who as a human rights advocate promoted and supported each the Jail Writing and Freedom to Write campaigns.

Bell by no means forgot that statistics can function a cover-up to the humanity of each particular person imprisoned by this nation. She by no means accepted the criminalization and dehumanization of individuals inside. Bell at all times tried to steadiness the concepts of the person author who discovered their creativity and creative self whereas in jail and the necessity for social actions that really can have energy and produce about change. The strain between artist and advocate was one which Bell embodied. 

In 2009, Bell and I, together with different artists, activists, and students, participated within the Blue Mountain Heart’s first focus residency on prisons. At the moment Bell was engaged on enhancing Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP) V19 #1. The difficulty of the JPP featured nonfiction items that addressed problems with punishment and inventive resistance and have been written by winners of the PEN America Jail Writing Contest. Bell at all times seemed for publication platforms to amplify incarcerated individuals’s work. All through the 2 weeks that all of us labored and collaborated at Blue Mountain, Bell constantly highlighted our participation. Bell believed that the lived expertise of imprisonment wanted to be heard loudly and clearly. On the time, I used to be writing a memoir about my incarceration. Bell and I spent hours wanting over the ultimate drafts of my manuscript. Bell pressed me time and again: she needed deeper fact and examination of the why of my life selections. What a treasure to have Bell come full circle with me, first once I was a jail author the place she reached out to encourage me after which advocate for my launch, to then pushing me and different previously incarcerated individuals to affix the PEN Jail Writing Committee, after which to be moved once more to dig deeper, as she would say.

Author, painter, professor, organizer, advocate, anti-racist, anti-war activist, freedom rider, beat, Bell was impressed by and contributed to justice in America and world wide. She gave everything of her life to this strong, difficult and, usually, thankless work. Bell died this previous yr after a long and hard sickness. What she left behind is a phenomenal legacy crammed with important considering and charm. Bell Gale Chevigny sits with the good luminaries of PEN America’s previous. These like Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Grace Paley, and so many others, who constantly elevated the writings of the dispossessed. Bell is without doubt one of the elders whose shoulders individuals akin to Nicole Fleetwood and Dwayne Betts and Caits Meissner stand. It was Bell who laid a basis for a way we construct another tradition and set of methods to abolish prisons.


PEN America’s Jail and Justice Writing honored Bell Gale Chevigny and her legacy at Break Out 2022: Celebrating the PEN America Prison Writing Awards on December 2, 2022 on the Brooklyn Public Library with the next memorial video.


Susan Rosenberg is a human rights and prisoners rights advocate, adjunct lecturer, award-winning author, speaker and a former prisoner. Her memoir, An American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country (Citadel, 2011), particulars her 16+ years in federal jail and conclusions about her jail expertise. She was launched from jail in 2001 by way of govt clemency by then President Invoice Clinton. Susan has labored in nonprofit communications on human rights and in protection of prisoners and the abolition of prisons. A member of the Household and Mates of Dr. Mutulu Shakur, and Susan is an adjunct lecturer at Hunter Faculty, in Ladies and Gender research. She is within the board of administrators of Thousand Currents, a global growth group, and on the Board of Women of Hope Ministries, a girls and ladies re-entry group. Susan serves on the Prison Writing Committee at PEN America.

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