This former prisoner has written 50 books about life behind bars
Edward Palmore has written so many manuscripts in the past 25 years he’s lost count. He knows he’s penned at least 50.
Palmore didn’t travel a traditional path to authorship, though. He never attended a writers’ workshop or landed a six-figure deal with a prestigious New York publishing house. Most of his manuscripts were written by hand, with faulty pens and scraps of paper, on a cot in a prison cell.
Palmore spent 18 years behind bars, shuttled between half a dozen different Georgia jails and prisons, for a 1998 child cruelty conviction. At 47 years old, the veteran and former psychologist with no prior criminal record found himself in a foreign realm, with virtually nothing to do to pass the time.
But Palmore didn’t want to waste nearly two decades of his life. Instead, he spent every spare moment reading and writing about the criminal justice system. He’s continued to write every single day since his release in 2016.
Research suggests artistic outlets in prison help prisoners cope and can even reduce the likelihood they’ll reoffend.
Palmore hopes his literary compositions will educate the public about the inner-workings of a world often hidden from view, and maybe even inspire political and societal reform.
“I’ve got plenty of ideas,” Palmore said. “I just need a way of getting them out there.”
‘I didn’t grow up in the streets’
Edward Palmore was born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 23, 1951. After Palmore’s mother died when he was 14 months old, his father remarried and raised three children in a no-nonsense home, where Palmore said he never heard a curse word, unless someone was quoting the Bible.
“I grew up around the streets, but I didn’t grow up in the streets,” Palmore said.
His family valued hard work, education and faith in the Lord. Not even pop culture could pierce the hallowed walls of the Palmore home.
“If I wanted to hear Aretha Franklin, I went out in the streets. But you didn’t play Aretha Franklin in the house,” Palmore said. “You know what you played in the house? ‘Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.’”
In 1969, Palmore packed his bags and moved across the country to attend Prairie View A&M University in southeastern Texas. He transferred in 1971 to the University of Houston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in U.S. history the following year.
After graduation, Palmore deployed to Grafenwoehr, Germany, serving in the air defense artillery unit of the U.S. Army from 1972 to 1976. He earned a master’s degree in human resources while in the military, and then went on to Boston University, where he graduated in 1981 with a doctor of education in counseling psychology.
Palmore spent most of his career working as a teacher and school psychologist, first in Newark and then in Decatur, Georgia. His life took a drastic turn in 1997, when some “so-called friends down South” convinced Palmore to move to Hancock County to open a home for troubled youth.
For a few months, Palmore owned and operated Project Possibilities, a state-licensed residence for children who had brushed with the law. The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice shuttered the facility in September 1997, after Palmore and one of his employees were arrested for allegedly beating a 12-year-old child who stole a piece of cheese, The Telegraph reported at the time.
Palmore’s co-defendant pleaded guilty to one count of child cruelty and received 10 years probation. Palmore opted to plead his innocence at trial and faced a starkly different outcome.
After seven hours of deliberation, the jury found Palmore guilty of one count of cruelty to children. A judge sentenced him to 20 years in state prison, with the possibility for parole.
When the judge banged his gavel and remanded Palmore to state prison, Palmore said, “I knew that meant something. I knew that my whole life would change.”
An inside look into the criminal justice system
Prison was a rude awakening for Palmore. He spent the majority of his first few years in prison holed up in the law library, drafting appeals on a rickety typewriter. After hitting one legal roadblock after the next, Palmore decided to channel his energy into creative writing instead.
While incarcerated, Palmore wrote novels, songs, poems and plays inspired by his experiences in prison. Labyrinth, a two-volume novel published upon his release, draws from stories a fellow inmate told Palmore one night in their dormitory while sharing a bag of microwave popcorn.
Palmore also estimates he read more than 2,000 books during his 18 years in prison. Reading and writing, Palmore said, helped him stay sane in a place otherwise devoid of mental stimulation. “The biggest problem in prison for me, it wasn’t the food — because I could endure the food — or lack of clothes or even the lack of camaraderie with the inmates, ‘cause I’d rather be by myself anyway,” he said.
“The biggest problem was the lack of information and knowledge.”
Writing, Palmore said, was therapeutic.
Years of research suggest opportunities for creativity in prison can increase inmates’ self-esteem and work ethic, improve their interactions with other prisoners and correctional officers, and might even reduce recidivism rates.
Several universities, nonprofit organizations and news outlets have partnered with correctional facilities to provide opportunities for current and former inmates to write about their experiences in prison. In 2014, The Marshall Project launched Life Inside, a weekly series featuring personal essays about the criminal justice system.
Pieces written by current and former inmates shed light on a system shrouded in secrecy, said Eli Hager, staff writer for the nonprofit newsroom and editor of Life Inside.
“We can report on the systemic failures of prison systems and the wrongdoing of officials or officers. We can report on what’s happening statewide or nationwide in the prison system,” Hager said. “But in terms of the day-to-day experiential aspect of what life is like and how it affects people’s humanity and how it really feels in your core to be locked up for a long period of time, we can’t really report on that as outsiders.”
As someone who spent nearly two decades in prison, Palmore thinks he can lend a unique perspective to discussions about criminal justice reform.
“One of the problems we have with prison reform — all these people have wrote these wonderful books. They got a lot of information,” he said. “But most of the folks who wrote the books never spent one day in prison as a prisoner.”
Palmore, on the other hand, has a deeply intimate awareness of the judicial process. He can speak knowledgeably about the difference between public and private prisons, because he’s spent time in both. Palmore has read research articles about the negative effects of solitary confinement, but admits some days he was thrilled to be sent to administrative segregation, because that meant he could finally have some peace and quiet to write.
Palmore can’t help but laugh when he sees depictions of prison life on TV. He calls them “a farce.”
“I saw one picture where Chris Rock was sitting at a table with a knife and a fork. Ain’t nobody in their right mind gonna give a prisoner a knife and a fork,” Palmore said. “Oh, God, you wouldn’t — as a prisoner, you wouldn’t want a knife or a fork, because you know that would end up in somebody’s kidney or in somebody’s throat, easily.”
Through his writing, Palmore wants to set the record straight. He hopes people might better understand the nuances of the criminal justice system if they read about it through the eyes of someone who has experienced life in prison firsthand.
Looking toward the future
Dozens of spiral-bound manuscripts fill the shelves of a floor-to-ceiling wooden cupboard along the wall in Palmore’s kitchen. More piles of texts with brightly colored covers are stacked on a long dining table by the door.
When Palmore paroled out of prison in 2016 , all he brought with him on a Greyhound Bus to Macon were the clothes on his back, a $25 debit card and three bags stuffed with handwritten documents. Palmore has accumulated a few more possessions since his release — books, a laptop, a humble home in west Macon — but his works of writing are still his most prized belongings.
As the sun began to dip low in the sky outside Palmore’s living room window one Wednesday afternoon in February, he lifted a thick manuscript from his cluttered coffee table and started to flip through its 525 pages. The text, “From the Prisoner’s Point of View,” is a collection of Palmore’s writings, which he hopes might serve as a supplemental material in college-level criminal justice courses. It’s filled with excerpts from his novels and plays, original songs and even quizzes on prison vernacular.
Palmore wants to spread his insights on the criminal justice system with as many people as possible. He’s working on a blog, he’s given a guest lecture at Mercer University and he plans to volunteer on a 2020 presidential campaign, once he determines which candidate has an adequately progressive stance on prison reform.
As Palmore reclined on a wooden rocking chair, he said he didn’t want to focus on the past.
Palmore has served his time in prison, longer than some Georgia inmates serve for aggravated assault or involuntary manslaughter. He wants to spend the next chapter of his life informing others about the injustices prisoners face and suggest improvements to a system he thinks is flawed.
“I believe that my latter days will be better than my former days,” Palmore said. “And I’ll be able to do a lot of help for a lot of people — not based on the greatness of the things that I’ve done, but based on the experience and my capacity to sit down and write about ‘em.”
Telegraph archives were used in this report.
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.