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Prose and Cons : A Renewed Proposal to Award Prizes for Prison Fiction Writing Stirs Up an Old Debate Over the Question: Should Crime Pay?

September 06, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | Times Staff Writer

Bob Dellinger--a successful, white-haired Los Angeles screenwriter--has a modest plan to encourage the craft he polished while serving 20 months for extortion in the Terminal Island Federal Prison.

Dellinger, 58, wants to offer $1,000, $500 and $250 prizes for the best writing composed by convicts. In each category, he would award the money for first, second and third best novel, screenplay, short story and play written behind bars in 1989.

He has won the backing for this plan from some prominent personalities, including novelist Joseph Wambaugh and U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real. He hopes to make his awards an annual event for inmates in the nation's 3,900 prisons and jails.

A Lunch for Writers

But Dellinger' prize program--for which he hopes to raise money with a writers' lunch this weekend in Venice--has raised some concerns among some crime victims and groups that seek to protect their interests. They wonder: Will the awards--even though they are for fictional, not factual or biographical works--foster prisoners' writing skills, or will they, in effect, make crime pay? Will the awards let criminals profit at victims' expense?

These are the sort of thorny issues that writers and those concerned with the American corrections system already have struggled with in at least two celebrated cases, one involving "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz and another involving novelist Norman Mailer and author-killer Jack Henry Abbott.

The prizes, a pipe-puffing Dellinger argued in an interview in his home last week, will benefit society, the prisons and prisoners. "We're trying to say (to inmates) take your time and be productive rather than destructive," he said. "Otherwise society has penalized itself because what it is going to have to do is deal with that person (in prison) again."

But, said Rhonda Brinkley, project director for the Rosa Parks Sexual Assault Crisis Center in Los Angeles: "Sitting up in jail, writing a book--I don't think that really makes (convicts) pay for the crime they committed. My gut feeling is that any money to be awarded to them should go back into a program to compensate the victims."

In 1977, New York lawmakers made clear their feelings on conflicts between the interests of victims and criminals when they approved the nation's first law giving victims access to earnings from criminal's stories. The lawmakers acted in response to published reports that Berkowitz, who terrorized New York with six "Son of Sam" murders, could profit handsomely by telling his grisly, twisted story.

Since then, California and 40 other states have enacted "Son of Sam" laws to divert book, television or movie proceeds to victims or their families, said the National Organization for Victim Assistance in Washington.

Dellinger, who has dreamed of launching his award program for years, and his backers, are well aware of the controversies surrounding prison writers.

Dellinger said he had thought about offering a fiction award since his days in the Terminal Island class. He waited, however, until he had gained enough credibility himself to propose the prize early in the 1980s.

He was forced to shelve his plan in 1982, when Abbott, a convict-writer best known for his book "In the Belly of the Beast," won parole with the help of novelist Mailer. Abbott later killed a man outside a New York restaurant.

"All of a sudden to be a convict-writer was the kiss of death," said Dellinger, who can claim more than 50 credits for writing movies and television episodes.

But when public opinion seemed to shift again a few years later, Dellinger again began to push for the prizes. Real, who had secured Dellinger's probation from prison in 1973, gave the prizes a giant boost by winning support for them from the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Dellinger, meantime, had won the endorsement of the American Correctional Assn. for the prizes. He also had gathered his board of directors from writers he had brought to his Terminal Island classes, which he continued to teach well after he was released on probation.

Besides Wambaugh, the board includes Tony Bill, a producer and restaurateur; David Anspaugh, director of the movie "Hoosiers"; Jason Miller, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, "That Championship Season"; and Bill Nuss, a producer for Fox Broadcasting's "21 Jump Street."

Dellinger and his supporters insist the "Son of Sam" controversies do not apply to their plans for their fiction prizes. Because the works would be fiction, they also believe authors would be able to keep any future profits from their art.

"Son of Sam laws were set up to keep people from literally benefiting from their crimes," said Bill. "The awards we're setting up are for people to benefit from their literature."

Dellinger said he also sees the prizes as a recognition of the substantial body of literature that has been written in prisons.

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