A Prisoner’s Only Writing Machine
By Daniel A. Gross
July 20, 2017
The clear plastic device that has kept one American typewriter company afloat. Illustration by Dadu Shin
Kenneth Foster, Jr., became a writer on death row. When he was nineteen, he drove three friends to two armed robberies in San Antonio, Texas; late that night, one of the friends shot and killed a man. Foster was in the car, approximately eighty feet away, but, under the Texas Law of Parties, he was convicted, in 1996, of capital murder. (Foster, like more than a third of the prisoners executed in Texas, is African-American.) He started writing a few years later, after he watched correctional officers forcibly remove a prisoner from his cell. “This man was gassed, wrestled down, cuffed and dragged to his fate,” he told me recently, in a letter. The prisoner was executed by lethal injection, and Foster began to grasp that, one day, the same thing would happen to him. He needed to share what he saw and felt. “I have written with everything from pen, typewriter, marker, to my own blood,” he explained. “I have written on tables, floors, on walls when I only had a crack of light, in the dark, under blinding lights.”
He bought his first typewriter, a Smith Corona, around 1999, and he began writing letter after letter in an effort to stop his execution, which was set for August 30, 2007. The state kept death-row prisoners in solitary confinement, or “seg,” and, alone in his cell, Foster began to think of his typewriter as a companion. He recalled:
Regardless that I’ve had countless of these cheap machines each one is “baby.” The receiver of my affection and attention. Without “her” I didn’t feel complete. With “her” I felt like I was on a DELL in an office somewhere in upper Manhattan. While guys spent time in these Seg cells calling out chess moves over the walkways or doing push-ups until their veins bulged from their temples, I was in my cell pecking away trying to create a different world for myself. Some kind of way I felt I could rewrite my future.
In Texas, before prisoners are put to death, the seven-member Board of Pardons and Paroles reviews their applications for clemency one last time. On August 30th, Foster saw his wife and grandfather, and, in a small act of protest against capital punishment, he refused to eat a final meal. Then his father arrived. “Six to one!” he shouted, ecstatic. The board had read Foster’s typewritten application and voted to recommend that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison. An hour later, Governor Rick Perry called off the execution.
Foster said that as soon as he was sent back to a prison cell, he resumed writing. In the years that followed, many prisons began to regulate typewriters. When Foster’s typewriter broke a few years ago, he discovered that the commissary stocked only clear-plastic machines made by Swintec. This model often broke, he said, but he depended on it. “Buttons stop working, centering goes off,” he told me. It costs two hundred and twenty-five dollars. “That’s a ludicrous price to pay for such junk, but for a person that produces as much material as myself it is absolutely necessary.”
Just across I-95 from New York City, in a light-industrial patch of Moonachie, New Jersey, a one-story building houses the headquarters of the Swintec Corporation, the nation’s sole supplier of clear typewriters. Eighty-five people used to work in the office; fewer than ten do today. Among them is Ed Michael, Swintec’s prison-sales manager. He joined the company in 1985. “We didn’t think about the prison market until the early two-thousands,” he told me. “We had no sense of the amount of business that was available.”
Swintec started out as a supplier of office devices like shredders and adding machines, but the rise of personal computing cut deeply into its profits. Then Swintec employees realized that PCs weren’t making it into prisons: few American prisons permit computers, and many require that electronics be constructed out of transparent plastic, to prevent inmates from hiding contraband inside. “It was a breakthrough,” Michael told me. At corrections conferences, guards confirmed that clear-plastic typewriters would reduce the need for tedious inspections. “It was good for them, good for us.”
More than two million people are incarcerated in the United States; they represent an immense and literally captive market. In total, states spend more than fifty billion dollars a year on their correctional systems, much of which goes to private companies in the form of contracts for construction, food, medical services, phone lines, and products sold to inmates. Swintec typewriters sell modestly, on the order of three thousand to five thousand machines per year, Michael said. Each costs roughly the same as a cheap laptop. But, unlike laptops, typewriters also consume a steady stream of supplies. One catalogue sent to prisons across the U.S. sells ribbons (eight dollars), correction tape (fourteen dollars for a six-pack), and printwheels (forty-nine dollars). The handful of inmates with whom I corresponded all told me that few people in prison can afford Swintec typewriters. In that catalogue, they’re the most expensive item for sale. (A clear-plastic television is as much as eighty dollars cheaper than the cheapest Swintec.) Wages for incarcerated people can generally be measured in cents per hour.
“We don’t feel that our machine is overpriced,” Michael told me, citing the costs of developing special features like spell-check and cut-and-paste. He wouldn’t say how much Swintec spends to manufacture its machines, which are shipped in from factories in Indonesia and Japan, but he did say that the company profits when prisons specifically approve their devices. “A lot of states will mandate that their inmates can only buy those types of machines,” he said. That’s one reason that a typewriter company can survive in the era of smartphones.
I asked Tom Furrier, a typewriter repairman in Arlington, Massachusetts, what he thought of the price of Swintec machines, which he occasionally sells and repairs. “It might as well be a thousand dollars, to some people,” he said. “But I don’t think the cost is outrageous, by any means.” Hundreds of old-fashioned typewriters sit on shelves in Furrier’s shop. I asked him why prisoners couldn’t use refurbished machines like that. “You could almost fashion anything out of these pieces,” he told me, pointing to the steel lever arms of an Underwood. “It would be lethal, I’m sure. Almost any part in this machine.”
John J. Lennon, who is serving twenty-eight years to life for a 2001 murder, used a Swintec typewriter to become a journalist in prison. When I visited him recently, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, New York, he told me that he traded his first typewriter to another prisoner for drugs. But eventually he joined a writer’s workshop run by a Hamilton College professor, Doran Larson, and a Swintec helped him write about his life: the man he killed; a stabbing he survived; the mother who had, through everything, continued to support him.
Lennon’s cell has no chair, so, until recently, he would sit on an upturned bucket next to the bed, upon which he would place the typewriter. Lately, on account of back pain, he sits on the bed and rests his typewriter on his lap. “You’ll hear my typewriter going all day,” he said. Lennon’s Swintec allows him to save a maximum of seven thousand characters. “You have to get the first four pages solid, delete, then start the next four,” he told me. During periods when his typewriter is broken, he writes letters by hand, in a neat cursive scrawl. A few years ago, he asked a fellow-prisoner to tattoo a typewriter on his arm.
In 2013, Lennon wrote an essay arguing that gun-control laws could have stopped him from buying the assault rifle that he had used for murder. “Despite the Xanax dulling my emotions, my heart pounded when I picked up the M-16,” he typed. “A surge of power rushed through me when I felt the trigger.” He mailed the piece to a few magazines; The Atlantic published it on its Web site. “It’s a high when you get something published,” he told me. During our conversation, he started one sentence with, “When I’m out, maybe working for a magazine.” Around us, parents played Scrabble with their incarcerated sons, and children drank soda with their incarcerated fathers. “Hopefully my third act is a little sexier than my second,” he said.
Others have achieved what Lennon aspires to. In 2003, Daniel Genis, a Russian-American in his early twenties, was arrested for a string of robberies in Manhattan. In prison he wrote “Narcotica,” a novel about drug addiction, on a Swintec, and since his release he has written about incarceration for Vice and the Daily Beast. But such stories are rare. During my visit to Swintec headquarters, Ed Michael told me about Stanley (Tookie) Williams, III, a gang member who killed four people in Southern California. Michael seemed moved by the fact that, while on death row in California, Williams used a Swintec to write books for children. I asked what happened to him. “They finalized his sentence,” Michael said. “They did it. Yeah. So he’s not there anymore.”
Nearly ten years have passed since Kenneth Foster, Jr., was spared from execution. “I look at it as I’m halfway through my life,” he told me. “I’ve now spent more time in prison than I did a free man.” He’s housed in a maximum-security prison in Beaumont, Texas, where all of his possessions fit in two cubic feet. Alongside the Bible, the Quran, a seven-language dictionary, and Black’s Law Dictionary, he keeps his typewriter. Recently, Foster told me that his unit had been placed on lockdown because of a stabbing in the prison. The phones were shut off, and he didn’t have time to buy stamps before the commissary closed. He found himself, once again, turning to the typewriter for companionship.
He hopes that, if he types enough sentences, he can change the one sentence that matters most: he is eligible for parole in August, 2036. Writing gives shape to the weeks and months in front of him. Sometimes Foster writes letters to his daughter, who was recently released from federal prison herself. At one point, I asked whether writing gives him solace. “I wouldn’t say that ‘solace’ is the right word,” he said. “I guess writing has made me feel that I have a fighting chance.”
Daniel A. Gross is a writer and radio producer in Boston.