Novelist prisoner wants to rewrite rule

Victor Martin has been writing since he was a child, but he didn't realize it could be a career until he became a convict.

A few years ago, Martin became a published author, writing four novels while lying in his bunk in a state prison in Elizabeth City.

His books, which feature a high-rolling criminal named Unique and are available on Amazon.com, have a following among readers of what is known as “urban fiction,” a popular literary genre characterized by explicit tales of inner-city crime life.

But now Martin says prison officials are shutting him down, saying his novels violate a policy that bars inmates from conducting business behind bars. Prison officials say the policy is in place to protect prison safety.

Martin, a 32-year-old habitual felon with several theft-related convictions, says the policy violates his right to free speech.

Martin's attorneys are challenging the policy, which they say prison officials have used to claim Martin's manuscripts and discipline him for writing.

“When I'm trying to do something positive they want me to stop,” Martin said in a telephone interview from prison. “The way I see it, they want me to stay stagnant and not do anything.”

Martin's current publisher, Marcenia Waters of Charlotte, says Martin plays a small role in business affairs related to publishing. Her publishing company makes the arrangements for printing and distribution and handles the income from Martin's latest book, “Unique's Ending.”

Waters said she is an avid reader and became a fan of Martin's writing after hearing about the book through word of mouth. She decided to write him in prison and they developed a relationship through letters. Eventually, she offered to publish one of his books.

Attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina have sent a letter to officials with the state Department of Correction, asking about the whereabouts of a 310-page manuscript that they say was confiscated.

“There is no evidence that his writing is posing a danger,” said Katherine Lewis Parker, legal director with the ACLU's branch in North Carolina.

Keith Acree, a spokesman for the N.C. Department of Correction, declined to talk specifically about Martin's claims. But he said department policy prohibits prisoners from publishing their writing for payment while in prison.

“The policy prohibits conducting business from prison – not writing,” Acree said in an e-mail.

The policy says prisoners can't conduct business because it threatens prison safety. The inmate can be targeted for money, and guards could be adversely affected by monitoring the prisoner's activity, according to the policy.

Lawyers at N.C. Prisoner Legal Services have written about the clash between prisoner rights and prison policies, citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says inmates do not give up all constitutional rights.

But prisoners often face a tough challenge in trying to prove their case, lawyers say; prison officials have broad latitude.

Parker said in her letter that prison officials must prove that policies that infringe on prisoner rights are valid.

Waters said that Martin has not made any money through her company.