Your cart is empty.

Prison Life Writing

Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System

By Simon Rolston
Subjects Social Science, Sociology, Life Writing
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9781771125178, 301 pages, June 2021
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781771125185, June 2021
Ebook (PDF) : 9781771125192, June 2021

Table of contents

Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION. Autobiography and the Problem with Resistance: The Conversion Narrative in Prison Discourse and U.S. Prison Life Writing
1. Conversion and the Story of the U.S. Prison
2. The Treatment Era: African American Prison Life Writing and the Prison Conversion Narrative in George Jackson's Soledad Brother and James Carr's Bad
3. From the Treatment Era to the Monster Factory: Carl Panzram and Jack Henry Abbott's Anticonversion Narratives and the Dawn of Mass Incarceration
4. Life Writing in the Contemporary Carceral State: Writing My Wrongs, A Place to Stand, and the "Making of a Better Human Being"
5. "Love is Contraband in Hell": Women's Prisons, Life Writing, and Discourses of Sexuality in Assata and An American Radical
CONCLUSION. "These Women Like Myself": Becoming Ms. Burton and Rereading Prison Life Writing in a Time of Crisis


Prison Life Writing is the first full-length study of one of the most controversial genres in American literature. By exploring the complicated relationship between life writing and institutional power, this book reveals the overlooked aesthetic innovations of incarcerated people and the surprising literary roots of the U.S. prison system.
Simon Rolston observes that the autobiographical work of incarcerated people is based on a conversion narrative, a story arc that underpins the concept of prison rehabilitation and that sometimes serves the interests of the prison system, rather than those on the inside. Yet many imprisoned people rework the conversion narrative the way they repurpose other objects in prison. Like a radio motor retooled into a tattoo gun, the conversion narrative has been redefined by some authors for subversive purposes, including questioning the ostensible emancipatory role of prison writing, critiquing white supremacy, and broadly reimagining autobiographical discourse.
An interdisciplinary work that brings life writing scholarship into conversation with prison studies and law and literature studies, Prison Life Writing theorizes how life writing works in prison, explains literature’s complicated entanglements with institutional power, and demonstrates the political and aesthetic innovations of one of America’s most fascinating literary genres.


Prison Life Writing is a valuable study that continues the vital work of scholars in many disciplines to interrogate the practice of incarceration while also expanding our understanding of life writing.

- D. Quentin Miller, biography vol. 45, no. 1, 2022