The stark contrast between Hanif Abdurraqib’s early life and his current literary celebrity is not lost on him: He spent part of his younger years in and out of Ohio’s jails and courtrooms before publishing a series of critically acclaimed books and, in 2021, winning a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. Abdurraqib is a “system-impacted” writer, a term that refers to people who have been negatively affected by the criminal justice system, although he does not typically apply that label to himself.
“Let’s be real: If I didn’t win the MacArthur or write some shit that people like, I would have a hard time getting a job because I have a record,” says Abdurraqib. “So consider what it’s like for someone who has not won something prestigious or who has not gotten a book deal.”
With that in mind Abdurraqib is helping to steer a new initiative to support other system-impacted writers: the Writing Freedom Fellowship, a collaboration led by the Chicago-based nonprofit press Haymarket Books with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Art for Justice Fund. Abdurraqib joins an all-star lineup of authors who serve on the initiative’s board: Mahogany L. Browne, Natalie Diaz, Tayari Jones, Rachel Kushner, Andrea J. Ritchie, and Christopher Soto. Other members include Lawrence Bartley, publisher of the Marshall Project Inside (a publication for incarcerated audiences produced by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism outlet focused on criminal justice), and Romarilyn Ralston, executive director of Project Rebound at California State University in Fullerton, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals gain access to higher education.
The yearlong fellowship will provide funding to twenty writers who have been incarcerated or more broadly system-impacted, says Jyothi Natarajan, Haymarket’s program manager for the fellowship. “We’re including things like the border regime, family policing, and involuntary commitment [to a mental health facility] as part of how we understand carceral systems,” says Natarajan, who uses she/they pronouns. “We’re also keeping the fellowship open to writers who are impacted via having loved ones and family members who are directly impacted.”
The fellowship’s leaders wish to support those who demonstrate a commitment to writing, though they may be at different stages in their careers, Natarajan says. There are no residency or citizenship requirements for fellows, but Haymarket is focusing on candidates who “have a relationship to the United States.” Natarajan would not disclose the dollar amount for the awards “out of concern for the privacy and safety of future awardees, particularly any who may be presently incarcerated.” However, they say the fellowship has “no strings attached,” meaning that fellows are not required to complete a project to receive funding and may use the award money however they see fit.
Abdurraqib says board members nominated candidates and are part of a committee that will select the final twenty fellows, the names of whom are slated to be announced this fall. Fellows will have “opportunities for mentorship and professional development,” all offered remotely, Natarajan says. Whether the fellowship will continue in subsequent years for a new cohort of writers is still an open question that will be answered later, she says.
In his role as a board member, Abdurraqib says he is looking forward to building his literary network. “There’s a real opportunity, I think, to expand the community of writers, which means expanding my relationship with the work [of system-impacted writers] and the scope of what the work can do,” he says. “I also think that it provides a real opportunity to get work into the world that pushes up against some of the more traditional narratives we see, particularly narratives of incarceration.”
Haymarket—which has published authors such as Angela Y. Davis and Eve L. Ewing—runs Books Not Bars, which provides books to people who are in prison. Haymarket is slated to publish two books by incarcerated authors in the months ahead: in November, Lyle C. May’s Witness: An Insider’s Narrative of the Carceral State and, in February, Justin Rovillos Monson’s poetry collection, American Inmate.
The Writing Freedom Fellowship “really follows in the larger trajectory of Haymarket’s mission as a social justice publisher and one committed to abolitionist politics,” Natarajan says.
For Abdurraqib the Writing Freedom Fellowship is personal beyond his own experience with the carceral system. “I have loved ones who have been impacted by the system, and I workshop with writers who have been impacted by systems,” he says. “It confuses me often that there are not more resources for the work happening inside and for people who get free of the systems but are not free from the aftermath of their impacts.”
Having avenues to express himself through writing and other creative activities was essential for Michael Powell while he was incarcerated at Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. While there Powell was involved in the prison’s community center run by Healing Broken Circles, a nonprofit in Columbus, Ohio, that serves people who are currently and formerly incarcerated. The center, which closed during the pandemic, offered poetry, yoga, and dance classes alongside programs focused on workplace-readiness, parenting, and wellness.
Powell became a leader in the community center, where he mentored younger men and developed Beats by the Gallon, a program focused on songwriting and musical expression, among other activities. “It gave me an avenue to explore some things that I had never been exposed to before,” says Powell. “It just opened up for me to start thinking about myself in a different way.”
Powell was released in May 2020 and today serves as the Healing Broken Circles director of creative and youth programming and continues to write and perform music and poetry. He says the Writing Freedom Fellowship and programs like it are important because they create a positive culture in an inherently negative place. They also set people up for success after imprisonment.
So often the thinking around incarceration is based on punishment, which does little to help those who are incarcerated, Powell says. “They’re not taking into account, if you continuously punish the person that you already thought was bad, what is going to happen to that person?” he says. “They’re just gonna get worse if you keep beating them down.”
The Writing Freedom Fellowship is working to change that by giving those who are directly affected by incarceration the resources and support to share their stories.
“These narratives about what prison is and what justice is and what policing is, all of them, or many of them, at least, are not driven by folks who have been impacted by these systems in a big way,” Abdurraqib says. “I think having access to these stories told by people who are living them is important.”
Brittany Moseley is a writer and editor based in Columbus, Ohio.