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Prison Writing in 20th-Century America

NCJ Number
H B Franklin
Date Published
383 pages
This anthology offers a representative sample of literature written by inmates while in prison, with one of the criterion for selection being that the writing express the inmate's perception and subjective experiences of life in America's prisons from the early 1900s through 1997.
The introductory chapter presents the editor's overview of the history of America's prisons as gleaned from the writings of inmates at various periods of history. Two selections are presented under the editor's rubric of "From Plantation to Penitentiary." These writings portray how former slaves were criminalized by many vaguely defined laws that came to be known as Black Codes. Convicts were leased to railroad companies, coal mines, canal companies, plantation owners, and other southern economic enterprises. Life under such a system is described in the inmate writings of the time. Inmate writings under the rubric of "The Early Modern American Prison" include writings from 1907 through 1959. Seven writings pertain to prison conditions for persons who were imprisoned for activities related to their involvement in the civil rights movement. Sixteen writings are presented under the rubric of "The Literary Renaissance" among inmates. This period extends from 1967 through 1997. Three papers are under the editor's rubric of "The American Gulag Today." These writings are all from the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. The editor interprets the writings to reveal the psychological and physical brutality of prison life, such that it fuels rather than treats criminal behavior.