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12 famously incarcerated writers

Each year, PEN International marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer in order to raise awareness about persecuted and incarcerated writers worldwide, but not all writers who have done time have been political prisoners. Here are a dozen writers who went to prison for a variety of reasons:

Each year, PEN International marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer in order to raise awareness about persecuted and incarcerated writers worldwide, but not all writers who have done time have been political prisoners. Here are a dozen writers who went to prison for a variety of reasons:

Sir Thomas Malory

There is some question about which Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, one of the most famous medieval versions of the story of King Arthur, but it has long been attributed to Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel on fairly substantial scholarly evidence. Despite his famed chivalry and honour, if the record is to be believed the real Malory was a gentleman and Member of Parliament turned gangster who robbed, raped and kidnapped. Malory went to prison more than once for his alleged crimes and escaped on two occasions, once having had to swim across a moat. Because the family of a political rival were largely the targets of his alleged crimes, it is believed that either Malory had a partly political motive or that the charges themselves were invented by his political rivals. Malory is believed to have written Le Morte d’Arthur while in prison between 1468 and 1470. He died just a few months after his final release from prison in 1470.

Christopher Marlowe 

The playwright who scholars say wielded enormous influence on Shakespeare had several run-ins with the law before his murder at the age of 29. In the mere six years of his career, Marlowe wrote several plays, including Doctor Faustus. In the meantime, he led a colourful life that included brawling and possibly spying for the government.

Marlowe spent two weeks in prison in 1589 when he was involved in an argument with neighbours in which one person died but he was cleared of any charges. Three years later, he was arrested in the Netherlands for counterfeiting but then released without being charged.

His final brush with the law happened on May 20, 1593 when he was arrested for his atheism. He was released again but was required to report daily to court. Ten days later, however, he died in a drunken brawl.

Daniel Defoe

famous writer who was imprisoned - Daniel Defoe portrait

The author of Robinson Crusoe was as famous in his own day as a political pamphleteer as for his other work. In 1703, his most successful pamphlet resulted in his prosecution for seditious libel. It is believed that there was a political component to the severe sentence he received which added a hefty fine and three days in the pillory to a prison sentence. Prior to his time in the pillory, he composed the popular poem ‘Hymn to the Pillor.’ Legend says that rather than pelting him with rotten food as was often done to people in the pillory, people in the street tossed flowers and drank to his health though scholars argue that the story is likely untrue. Defoe was arrested twice more for his political writings and did one more stint in prison. Despite the success of Robinson Crusoe and other works, he was dogged by debts for the rest of his life.

Marquis de Sade

The famous libertine and the man after whom the word ‘sadism’ entered the English lexicon, best known for such works as 120 Days of Sodom and Justine, was imprisoned a number of times throughout his life for sexual offences and died in an insane asylum. He was sent to prison twice in the 1760s for abusing prostitutes. In 1772, he and his male servant were accused of sodomy and poisoning prostitutes with the nonlethal aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. The two fled to Italy and were sentenced to death in absentia. De Sade was arrested again in Italy and later on his return to France. He was released during the French Revolution but arrested yet again in 1801 and later sent to an insane asylum where he died in 1814. De Sade completed much of his writing while imprisoned.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A number of Soviet-era writers were imprisoned in Russia, but the tsars didn’t have a great track record regarding freedom of expression either. In 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested for reading and circulating banned political essays and sentenced to death by firing squad. He was being taken to be executed along with several other people when his sentence was commuted by the tsar at the last minute.

Dostoyevsky spent eight years in prison. Considered to be one of the most dangerous inmates, he spent most of his time shackled and ill. After his release, he went on to write such classic novels as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov.

Paul Verlaine

Paul Verlaine had been publishing poetry for about eight years when he received a letter in 1871 from fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud. Within the year Verlaine had abandoned his wife and child and run away with Rimbaud. However, in 1873, the two got into a quarrel over Verlaine’s jealousy, and Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud. Although the other man was not seriously injured, Verlaine went to prison for the attack where he converted to Catholicism and wrote a collection called Romances sans paroles that was published in 1874 while he was still in prison.

Oscar Wilde

The Irish playwright and novelist of such famous works as The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Earnest was imprisoned in 1895 on charges of sodomy and gross indecency with men. The case was a convoluted one; Wilde had pressed charges of libel against the father of one of his lovers, the Marquess of Queensbury, who accused Wilde of sodomy. Queensbury brought evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality to court in his defence, and Wilde dropped the case but was subsequently arrested. Wilde spent two years in prison and wrote the poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ about his experiences. He left England as soon as he was released and died in dire straits in Paris in 1900.

These are all historical cases, but you might be wondering: Did any twentieth century or contemporary writers spend time in prison? Quite a few did. Here are some of them:

Nelson Algren

incarcerated writers - Algren was jailed for stealing a typewriter

You may think that you are dedicated your fiction, but would you go so far as to steal writing supplies to support your habit? The American writer who would go on to pen the National Book Award winner The Man With the Golden Arm in 1949 went to prison for five months in the early 1930s for stealing a typewriter from an empty classroom. The experience profoundly affected him and his approach to writing as he saw himself as affiliated with the downtrodden of society.

William S. Burroughs

The Beat author of a number of works including Naked Lunch, Burroughs was first arrested in 1946 after he forged a prescription. However, his legal problems got much worse in 1951 when he shot and killed his common-law wife Joan Vollmer following a drunken argument. Allegedly, he announced that it was time for the William Tell game, she put a glass on her head, and Burroughs shot low. Whether or not the incident was deliberate has never been determined, but Burroughs spent two weeks in prison before getting out on bail. Mexican courts found him guilty of homicide, but by then, Burroughs had fled back to the United States.

Dashiell Hammett

Hard-boiled crime novelist Hammett was imprisoned for six months in the early 1950s for contempt of court. Hammett had been part of a group called the Civil Rights Congress that was named a communist front group, and he became one of the trustees of a bail fund established to help 11 men convicted of trying to violently overthrow the government. After four of the men fled, Hammett refused to provide the government with names of people associated with the fund or the group.

Chester Himes

Himes was sent to prison for armed robbery at the age of 19. He began writing and publishing fiction while still an inmate. Although sentenced to 20 to 25 years, he was released after eight years and went on to a significant career writing hard-boiled fiction including the novels A Rage in Harlem and Cotton Comes to Harlem.

Anne Perry

In the mid-1990s, readers were shocked to learn the true identity of popular mystery novelist Anne Perry: she was Juliet Hulme, who at 15 had helped her best friend Pauline Parker murder Parker’s mother in 1954. The story was chronicled in the film Heavenly Creatures. Hulme spent five years in prison for the murder in New Zealand and moved to the United Kingdom after her release. Perry’s first novel appeared in 1979 and she has since gone on to write dozens of successful books.

A surprising number of writers have a criminal record whether it is for writings that upset the political status quo of the time or much more violent crimes such as assault and murder. For some, the difficult time provided fodder for a book or a career, but others never recovered from their imprisonment.

Who are other famously incarcerated writers you know of?

Images from here and here.

By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

7 replies on “12 famously incarcerated writers”


Writers in Prison Committee of PEN Suisse Romand Centre


On the occasion of the PEN International Imprisoned Writer Day, 15 November 2016, the Writers in Prison Committee expresses concern over repression with impunity against freedom of expression, freedom of press and freedom of artistic creativity. Hundreds of writers, journalists, bloggers and artists were attacked during the last 12 months. Some were killed or missing. The murder of Anna Politkoskaya remains unpunished 10 years later.

At the PEN International Congress held in September in Ourense, Galicia, Spain, a dozen of adopted resolutions presented a grim picture of the situation, still insufficient and partial. In truth, the list of high-risk countries for literature and freedom of expression and opinion is not

With 10 killed and many injured, Afghanistan lived, in 2016, the deadliest year for media professionals, writers and intellectuals. In Bangladesh, a flagrant impunity for murders of
editors, bloggers, academics, activists of civil society and religious minorities. Cuba continues to harass and arrest journalists, writers and bloggers for crime of beliefs or convictions. In Egypt, a disturbing number of writers and journalists persecuted or imprisoned for exercising their right to freedom of expression, of the press, or of artistic creativity. In Eritrea, absence of independent media for 15 years. Systematic arbitrary arrests, violent disappearances and extrajudicial executions. 17 journalists victims of enforced disappearances, including Dawit Isaak, a Swedish-Eritrean journalist, playwright and poet, held in September 2001. China
mercilessly punishes writers and human rights defenders of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Some prisoners have been tortured. The Tibetan language is severely threatened because Mandarin is the main language taught in schools. Brutal crackdown hit the autonomous regions of Uygur Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and the special region of Hong Kong. Everywhere in China, freedom of expression is muzzled. At least 40 writers remain in prison, including the Nobel Peace Prize Liu Xiaobo. In Vietnam, dissident writers, journalists and bloggers are subject to arbitrary arrest, sentenced to particularly long prison terms in unfair trials. Some have been forced into exile in exchange for their release of the forced labour camp, as the woman poet Tran Khai Thanh Thuy and woman journalist Ta Phong Tan. In their place in prison, Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, founder of the Vietnamese Bloggers Network and mother of two small children, has been imprisoned for ‘’propaganda against the socialist State’’. She risks 20 years in prison. India has experienced a disturbing deterioration of freedom of expression. Writers, artists and journalists are harassed and silenced for expressing the concerns of religious, social and linguistic minorities. In Honduras, freedom of expression remains a major concern. Since 2003, 57 journalists have been killed while in the majority of cases, the perpetrators have not yet been identified. Self-censorship in the media is motivated by the threat of criminal defamation and slanders lawsuits. Moreover, students are not guaranteed the right to peaceful protest as an essential element of freedom of expression. Cesario Padilla, journalist and co-founder of Honduras PEN Centre, was being followed by armed men. Mexico continues to be one of the deadliest country for media professionals: from 2005 to June 2016, more than 100 murdered journalists and 25 disappeared journalists. Nine communicators were murdered in the first half of 2016. Authors of crimes remain unpunished in 9 cases out of 10. In Iran, of the 61 persecuted writers, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and composers identified, 16 were in prison and 8 detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression and artistic creativity. Among these victims were two sentenced to death, the writer and poet Arzhang Davoodi and the author Hesameddin Farzizadeh. In Israel, Dareen Tatour was arrested on 11 October 2015 after posting one of her poems on
social networks. Israeli citizen, the Palestinian woman poet faces up to 8 years in prison for ‘’incitement to violence’’. On 14 January 2016, she was released and placed under house arrest until her trial scheduled towards the end of the year.

In Turkey, following the state of emergency, as of 28 July 2016, the authority ordered the closure of 131 media, including 3 news agencies, 16 TV channels, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines and 29 publishing houses, including the pro-Kurdish daily Özgür Gündem. 97 writers and journalists are known actually under arrest or in custody. Novelist Asli
Erdogan, one of the major voices in contemporary Turkish literature, was arrested on 17 August 2016 for making ‘’propaganda for a terrorist organization’’. The Great Repression continues on 31 October 2016, with the arrest of the editor Murat Sabuncu and several journalists of Cumhuriyet, the main opposition daily. As a reminder, Turkey is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Nguyên Hoàng Bao Viêt,
Vice president of PEN Suisse Romand
for the Writers in Prison Committee.

i’ve just finished a few books about my own experience. Because of my articles about corruption in the Hamptons, the D.A. did a vindictive prosecution. I did 4 years. Now Thomas Spota, the D.A. is doing 5 years.

Hi Donald, that sounds quite the wild experience. Thanks for reading our blog and commenting your experience.

Hi KC, thanks for the interesting share, I didn’t know that O. Henry had been imprisoned for three years on embezzlement charges. Thanks for reading our blog.

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