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Prison Life Writing

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

By Simon Rolston
Subjects Life Writing, Social Science, Sociology
Series Life Writing Hide Details
Paperback : 9781771125178, 301 pages, 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


The first full-length study of prison life writing, this book shows how the autobiographical literature of incarcerated people is consistently based on a conversion narrative, the same narrative that underpins prison rehabilitation.

By demonstrating how prison life writing interlocks with institutional power, the book challenges conventional preconceptions about writing behind bars. And yet, imprisoned people often use the conversion narrative like they repurpose other objects in prison: much like the radio motor retooled into a tattoo gun, the conversion narrative is often redefined to serve subversive purposes like questioning the supposed emancipatory role of prison writing, critiquing white supremacy, and reconfiguring what can be said in 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 controversial literary genres.