The world has been watching (and perhaps smirking) at the election problems of the nation sometimes considered the "leader of the free world". Much less media attention has focused on the roughly 4 million US citizens permanently denied their right to vote because of a felony conviction (400,000 in Florida alone). The disenfranchisement of these prisoners and former prisoners is only one of the ways in which they are silenced. So, what voice do prisoners have? Prison writing reveals a hidden history of the society in which it is produced. By writing, prisoners assert their presence, even though they are absent by virtue of being locked up.
Prison literature might be considered a hybrid genre. Its formal boundaries are fluid, its content diverse. It comprises works by writers who are imprisoned and by prisoners who become writers. It encompasses texts written both in prison and after prison. It includes the work of convicted criminals as well as political prisoners. Literature of incarceration takes many forms, including letters, autobiographies, memoirs, journals or diaries, novels, poetry, manifestos, essays and political philosophy. The prison experience might be the focus or subject of a text, an impetus for writing, or the motivation for a political or social cause.
Some of the world's most famous artists, writers and philosophers have been imprisoned, while other prisoners have gone on to become intellectual and political leaders. When we think of prison writing, we might think of Antonio Gramsci's notebooks and Mikhail Bakhtin's cigarette papers. We might also consider the letters of Wei Jingsheng; the political manifesto of Eugene Debs; the prison memoirs of Ruth First; the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela; the poetry of Wole Soyinka and Jack Mapanje; the novels of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and the politically charged work of Mumia Abu-Jamal. The list is vast.
Prison writing often calls attention to major flaws in society. Moreover, it poses numerous questions about gender, racial and class hierarchies, as well as social justice and historical understanding. How is it marked by gender, class, race, or ethnicity? Should we read prison texts as appeals to an alternate court, or as a history of resistance? The critical force and sociopolitical insights of these works cannot be ignored.
Academic interest in the relationship between gender and prison writing has grown in the past decade. Barbara Harlow's examination of the writing of women political prisoners, Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention (1992), puts it in the context of broader research on women, revolution and representation. The prison memoirs by Salvadoran guerrilleras Ana María Martínez and Nidia Díaz, for example, not only testify to the violence of that nation's civil war, but draw attention to women's emerging role in political affairs in Latin America during the latter half of the 20th century.
In the context of civil war, revolution, or social unrest, all prisoners are political. Prison texts accentuate the violence of a society at war, but also problematise the appearance of peace and order in a "civil" society. After all, writing by political prisoners and convicted criminals often challenges norms of justice and the existing social order. The conditions of incarceration also draw attention to broader forms of social control. Prison literature could, both literally and figuratively, be described as writing against the law.
Prison is frequently a site of political awakening. Perhaps the most famous example of this is The Autobiography of Malcolm X , but there are numerous other examples. A product of a racially oppressive society, Malcolm X achieved intellectual maturity and political consciousness in prison through reading and writing. His access to knowledge through books led him to say: "Up to then, I never had been so truly free in my life."
On the other hand, one of the ways in which prisoners are controlled is through surveillance and restrictions placed on reading and writing. Just as slaves were not allowed to learn to read, so prisoners are often discouraged or denied access to books and writing materials. As long-term US prisoner Jack Henry Abbott explained in a letter to Norman Mailer, "Books are dangerous where there is injustice... The books we have we hold almost by force of arms - literally. We have no legal rights as prisoners, only as citizens. The only 'rights' we have are those left to their 'discretion'. So we assert our rights the only way we can." Abbott's link between books and arms is by no means coincidental.
Despite attempts at censorship and cuts in funding for prison writing programmes, prisoners are still calling out from behind bars. There have been a number of anthologies of prison literature in recent years, including This Prison Where I Live: The Pen Anthology of Imprisoned Writers (1996), published by the international literary organisation Pen, which began its annual Prison Writing Contest in 1972, and H. Bruce Franklin's collection Prison Writing in 20th-Century America (1998).
The study of prison writing reveals transformations in societal definitions of deviance, as well as changing attitudes towards crime and punishment. Tracing the history of prison literature in the United States, for instance, Franklin notes that prison writing reflects developments in the penal system itself: "As prisons changed from being places of reformation to being places of cheap mass production, literature by convicts became increasingly a form of protest literature against the brutality of prisons and sometimes against the system itself."
A 1971 Nation editorial, published just after the Attica prison riots in New York, argued that: "American prisons have never been institutions; they have always been receptacles. But prisoners are not garbage." Nearly 30 years later, progressives might still argue that everyone in prison is a political prisoner. This does not mean that we should glorify crime or ignore the heinous acts committed by violent criminals, but we cannot ignore the political biases within the system.
Throughout history, people have been imprisoned for reasons of race, class, religion, ethnicity and political ideology. It is no coincidence that the poor and working classes have comprised most of the prison population in the US and Europe, for example. The case of the US, in particular, raises troubling questions about the role of prison in the political economy: rehabilitation has been all but dismissed as a goal of imprisonment, the death penalty is widely applied and there is growing evidence of racism in the legal and judicial system. Add to this the rampant growth of what is referred to as the "prison-industrial complex" and the privatisation of prisons, and one is left with the feeling that perhaps the police shows on TV are not telling the whole story. Why does "the land of the free" have the highest incarceration rate in the world?
Readers of prison literature know we can learn a lot about ourselves, our society and the human condition by listening to the voice of prisoners - political prisoners and convicts alike. Authors writing from and of prison have served as prophets, visionaries, social critics and historians, speaking not only on their own behalf but for others, especially those who still have no voice, both inside and outside the prison walls. Perhaps today, more than ever, prisoners' voices should be heard.
Kristine A. Byron is a PhD candidate in comparative literary and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut. She is speaking at the MLA on gender and representation in women's prison memoirs from El Salvador at the "Writing from Prison: International Perspectives" session.