In this course, we will study how first-person testimonial by incarcerated people writing about their experience inside—prisoner witness—can help us in understanding the American prison system. After a brief history of the U.S. prison system, early prisoner writing, and a survey of prisoner writing from 1904 to 1970, we will explore—through prisoner witness—the issues raised by the unprecedented rise of the nation’s mass-incarceration regime since the early 1970s.
The U.S. incarcerates a larger number and percentage of its own citizens than any nation on earth: larger than China, Russia, Cuba, or Iran. American ex-offenders are arrested again at a rate of 67% within three years, and 75% within five years of release. This course looks inside U.S. prisons, through the history of literary witness produced by incarcerated people. This history will help us to understand the mass-scale prison’s rise, its day-to-day practices, and why it fails so badly at the task of rehabilitation. Through prison witness, we may hope to begin to understand what is needed to make the U.S. prison a more socially constructive institution. Among other texts, we will read and discuss Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, The (online) American Prison Writing Archive, hosted and made possible by Hamilton College's Digital Humanities Initiative, and come to a sense of the moral weight that prison witness must carry in any truly democratic debate on the criminal justice system.