Curtis Dawkins published a collection of short stories in 2016 to great critical acclaim. The Graybar Hotel was picked up by Scribner, one of the most well-known and respected publishing houses in the country, and sales have been brisk. Dawkins, who earned his MFA from Western Michigan University, seemed to be off to a great start as a promising fiction writer.

But Curtis Dawkins is a convicted murderer who is serving a life sentence. And now that his debut book is a success, the state of Michigan wants their cut.

According to The New York Times, the Michigan Department of Treasury has filed suit against Dawkins, and is seeking 90 percent of his assets, including “proceeds from publications, future payments, royalties” and the money in his prison commissary account. The department is demanding “reimbursement to the state for [Dawkins’] cost of care while incarcerated,” which is estimated to be more than $372,000.

Dawkins, 49, has been imprisoned for 12 years and is now housed at the Lakewood Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan. He confessed to the drug-fueled murder of Thomas Bowman during a botched robbery in October 2004, a crime for which he professes guilt and sadness in the acknowledgements section of his book. According to the Times, Dawkins began writing fiction as a form of escape, what he referred to as “a lifeboat.”

When Scribner picked up The Graybar Hotel, Dawkins was stunned. He was offered a $150,000 advance, which he split with Jarrett Haley, the founder of the literary magazine Bull and the person Dawkins considered instrumental in getting his book published. The remainder of the advance, a little over $50,000, was sent to a limited liability corporation set up by his parents, to be used for the support and education of his children: Henry, 23; Elijah, 19; and Lily Rose, 17.

In a telephone interview with the Times, Dawkins said that his family was being unfairly punished.

“It hurt my kids,” Dawkins said. “I did wrong, but those kids are completely innocent.”

Not all states have laws that can be used to force prisoners to pay for their own incarceration, but Michigan does. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 40 states have similar laws, which require prisoners to pay for “room and board” or “cost of care.” As is the case in every other state, Michigan has collected very little from prisoners. According to the Times, the state collected about $3.7 million from 294 prisoners in the last fiscal year. Michigan incarcerates more than 40,000 prisoners; this sum is a drop in the bucket, which calls into question the state’s use of the law to go after Dawson, along with its uneven application.

Prisoners don’t retain many rights behind bars, but they do retain limited First Amendment protections. Prison authorities cannot stop a prisoner from writing. But they can, and as Dawkins’ story illustrates do, interfere with a prisoner’s right to write. The author of this article is incarcerated in a federal prison, from where he has penned multiple books and countless news articles. The Bureau of Prisons has confined this author to the hole for a cumulative five months and has sanctioned him severely with loss of privileges such as visitation, telephone, and email access to his family and friends — all as punishment for his writing.

Dawkins, who is defending the lawsuit himself because he cannot afford a lawyer, plans to argue that he has an obligation under Michigan law to support his children. He may no longer be able to support himself, however, because the state has also frozen his commissary account, which he likely uses to purchase hygiene and toiletry items, along with extra bits of food.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s justice program, told the Times that the state’s lawsuit could violate the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment as well as excessive fines.

“To say, you’re not only going to be deprived of your liberty, you’re then going to have to pay for the separation from society, that raises cruel and unusual punishment issues,” said Eisen.

Sharon Dolovich, a law professor and the director of the prison law and policy program at U.C.L.A.’s School of Law, said that prison authorities should be encouraging the meaningful and rehabilitative use of prison time, not punishing those who try to do something good.

“[Dawkins has] put his talents to productive use in a way that’s making the world a better place,” Dolovich told the Times. “It’s something that we as a society should be 100 percent supportive of.”

But America is a punitive and unforgiving nation. As Dolovich said in her recent book The New Criminal Justice Thinking, “[i]t is hard to find a minority more despised and politically disempowered than prisoners.” Curtis Dawkins, a talented writer who might have contributed greatly to the literary pantheon, is about to become the poster child for disempowered prisoners.

Christopher Zoukis, the author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts (McFarland & Co., 2014), is a contributing writer to Huffington Post, Prison Legal News, New York Daily News, Criminal Legal News, and the New York Journal of Books. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com. 

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).