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Prison Life Writing, Rehabilitation, and the Story of the American Prison System

Monday 29 April 2013, 6.30PM

Speaker(s): Dr Simon Rolston (Leeds Metropolitan University & Honorary Associate in English at the University of York)

'My talk will discuss writing that emerges from one of the most notorious institutions in the United States: the American prison. In particular, I will be considering the similarity between the discourse of the American prison system and the life writings of American prisoners. Although prison life writing is usually described as contesting rather than aligning with the ideology of the prison, my lecture will explore how theories of rehabilitation that are central to the prison system are also at work in prisoners’ autobiographical acts. By demonstrating how prisoners frequently reproduce the logic of rehabilitation in their life writings, I mean to complicate how we typically understand the relationship between discourses of power and resistance literature.

And yet, while I will explore how the rhetoric of rehabilitation is affirmed in some prison life writing, I will also show how prisoners like Malcolm X, Jack Henry Abbott, and James Carr use the prison system’s theories of rehabilitation in their life writings in ways radically different from those intended by the prison authorities. Their creative, often subversive use of theories of rehabilitation complicate traditional teleologies of citizenship, question the supposed emancipatory role of prison writing, and reconfigure what can and what cannot be said in auto/biographical discourse.'


Dr Simon Rolston’s area of expertise is twentieth-century American literature, with a theoretical focus on race, cultural studies, and life writing. Currently a part-time lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University and an Honorary Associate at York University, Simon has published in Critical Survey and MELUS. He is currently completing a book project entitled Prison Life Writing, Conversion, and the Story of the American Prison System.

This guest lecture follows on from the 2012 Prison Fictions and Human Rights project organised by Dr Claire Westall & Dr Michelle Kelly (English) and accompanies the 2013 Fictions of Human Rights module.

Location: Bowland Auditorium, Berrick Saul Building

Admission: All welcome