Poetry Magazine is a prestigious publication, well known in the literary world, and it recently published a special edition, one containing exclusively the works of those who have been incarcerated. Among the offerings was a poem by Kirk Nesset, a former English literature professor who was released from prison last year after a sexual offense conviction in 2014.
When readers protested the inclusion of Nesset’s work and a petition was started asking the magazine to remove the poem, the editors affirmed their decision to keep it, issuing this statement: “People in prison have been sentenced and are serving/have served those sentences; it is not our role to further judge or punish them as a result of their criminal convictions. As editors, our role is to read poems and facilitate conversations around contemporary poetry.”
In response to the situation and specifically to the petition, Dr. Ira Ellman, a retired Professor of Law and Psychology and a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, started another petition in support of Poetry Magazine and its decision not to exclude Nesset’s poem. In his petition, Dr. Ellman wrote:
A just, humane, and effectively functioning society must have punishment, but it must also afford basic human dignity to those it punishes. That obligation includes allowing people to participate in civic society, and to pursue a positive and productive life, including people with sex-related convictions.
In contrast, the demand to impose one exclusion after another on people who have already been punished implicitly assumes our right to disappear them from society, based on our individual judgments. Such carceral thinking has led to unjust and damaging policies that have incarcerated millions, and now exclude people from housing, employment, and public spaces, for life.
NARSOL is extremely selective in using and supporting petitions. We wholeheartedly support this one and encourage everyone reading this who believes that a prior conviction for a crime must not prevent those convicted from forever participating in society and life to sign it.
Sandy, a NARSOL board member, is communications director for NARSOL, editor-in-chief of the Digest, and a writer for the Digest and the NARSOL website. Additionally, she participates in updating and managing the website and assisting with a variety of organizational tasks.