In 1986 Bonnie Jean Foreshaw shot to death an expectant mother, killing her and her unborn child. She was convicted of murder and lost her appeal, leaving her to face the desolation of life in prison. Repeated efforts to seek parole were rejected. Dispute raged between a group of people led by the acclaimed author Wally Lamb, and journalist Andy Thibault, and the victim’s family. Those supporting Foreshaw believed that she only should have been convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Had that been the case she would have been released from prison some time ago. The contention was that she had armed herself to protect herself from an assault by a man who had abused her for years, a fact that prosecutors still dispute.
Whether you accept Bonnie’s version or believe the claims of the state, the undeniable fact was that Bonnie Jean Foreshaw has earned redemption. Foreshaw was among a group of women who came under the tutelage of Lamb who volunteered to teach a creative writing course to women inmates at the York Women’s Correctional Institution in Niantic. Lamb encouraged Foreshaw and others to use creative writing as an outlet. His efforts led to the publication of an anthology of their works, Couldn’t Keep It to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution (Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters). The core concept behind Wally’s work with these women was that they had something worthwhile to give despite their crimes.
Among the authors was Barbara Parsons Lane, also serving a sentence for homicide. Lane and Foreshaw met at York. They not only took Wally Lamb’s course together but worked in the prison’s puppy training center, part of a program to provide companion animals for the disabled. Barbara Lane’s piece won the prestigious Pen/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award in 2004. The award carried with it a $25,000.00 stipend which prompted then Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to seek to seize the cash award to reimburse the state for the cost of Lane’s imprisonment. Harper Collins purchased the book for $75,000.00 and the state was looking to seize that money as well. Led by Lamb and Thibault, Lane’s battle drew the attention of 60 Minutes. In addition, the prison administration shut down Lamb’s course. There was great irony that the state’s response to the Pen Award was to shut down the program, the antithesis of the rights under the First Amendment! Apparently the concept of rehabilitation was lost on those unenlightened bureaucrats. Shortly after the segment was televised the state withdrew its efforts to seize the award.
Part of the purge was the seizure from the inmate participants of their writing materials. In Barbara’s case her hard drive was seized. Included on that hard drive were not only her creative writings but also important documents related to her work in the prison’s puppy training program (more on that later) and her work as a literacy volunteer working with other women prisoners. Rather than allow the administration unfettered access to her personal writings Barbara chose to delete the information on her hard drive, creating the threat of further reprisals. Again, the 60 Minutes piece helped those of us involved on Barbara’s behalf to focus the public spotlight on the draconian actions of the small minded prison officials. Blumenthal morphed from antagonist to ally and the program was resurrected. A new computer was provided for the women.
Recently, after Foreshaw’s clemency petition was summarily denied, a memo came to light written by then Public Defender, now Judge, Jon Blue indicating that Foreshaw’s trial counsel had provided ineffective assistance, with several key failures. The existence of that memo and Judge Blue’s support brought Bonnie’s case to the forefront of the Pardon Board again, leading to the recent granting of her clemency petition. The concept of rehabilitation as part of our penal process has been dramatically demonstrated by the efforts of women like Barbara Lane and Bonnie Foreshaw. Lamb and his group of dedicated advocates should be congratulated for their efforts to show that there is something potentially worth exploring in those we have had to incarcerate.