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Reading Prisoners

Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700–1845

Jodi Schorb
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 268
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  • Book Info
    Reading Prisoners
    Book Description:

    Shining new light on early American prison literature-from its origins in last words, dying warnings, and gallows literature to its later works of autobiography, exposé, and imaginative literature-Reading Prisonersweaves together insights about the rise of the early American penitentiary, the history of early American literacy instruction, and the transformation of crime writing in the "long" eighteenth century.

    Looking first at colonial America-an era often said to devalue jailhouse literacy-Jodi Schorb reveals that in fact this era launched the literate prisoner into public prominence. Criminal confessions published between 1700 and 1740, she shows, were crucial "literacy events" that sparked widespread public fascination with the reading habits of the condemned, consistent with the evangelical revivalism that culminated in the first Great Awakening. By century's end, narratives by condemned criminals helped an audience of new writers navigate the perils and promises of expanded literacy.

    Schorb takes us off the scaffold and inside the private world of the first penitentiaries-such as Philadelphia's Walnut Street Prison and New York's Newgate, Auburn, and Sing Sing. She unveils the long and contentious struggle over the value of prisoner education that ultimately led to sporadic efforts to supply prisoners with books and education. Indeed, a new philosophy emerged, one that argued that prisoners were best served by silence and hard labor, not by reading and writing-a stance that a new generation of convict authors vociferously protested.

    The staggering rise of mass incarceration in America since the 1970s has brought the issue of prisoner rehabilitation once again to the fore.Reading Prisonersoffers vital background to the ongoing, crucial debates over the benefits of prisoner education.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6268-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction A Is for Aardvark: A Prison Literacy Primer
    (pp. 1-16)

    The power of literacy rests in its associative promises: to acquire literacy is to gain access to something more, some wider hope or possibility. Contemporary literacy outreach programs commonly associate learning to read and write with coming into power or gaining a voice. The slogan of the United Nations Literacy Decade, for example, imagines “Literacy as Freedom.” The National Literacy Project aspires to “help students develop literacy skills necessary for success in college, in the workplace, and as citizens.” The Literacy Project of Western Massachusetts seeks to “keep the doors of opportunity open for all adults.”¹ The refrain is familiar:...

  5. Part One Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century “Gaol”

    • Chapter 1 Books Behind Bars: Reading Prisoners on the Scaffold
      (pp. 19-47)

      Before the 1790s, there were no prison classrooms, no prison libraries, and no formal programs to educate prisoners. When available, readings were carefully chosen, highly regulated, and religious; they remained so well into the nineteenth century, even after the birth of the penitentiary and the subsequent development of prison libraries and schools. Yet the porous nature of eighteenth-century jails did facilitate a range of exchanges, both licit and illicit, allowing frequent contact between prisoners, between prisoners and ministers, and between prisoners and local community members. Ministers and visitants offered comfort and spiritual counseling; they also brought books, Bibles, and religious...

    • Chapter 2 Crime, Ink: The Rise of the Writing Prisoner
      (pp. 48-86)

      “Without the art of writing, and without the modern system of commercial credit,” insisted the German American reformer and educator Francis Lieber in 1835, “mankind would have been spared two of the most numerous classes of crime—fraud and forgery.”¹ Lieber’s purpose, echoed by a host of philanthropists and social reformers, was to advocate for early education as a deterrent to crime. Yet Lieber’s observation—here invoked as a provocation—also revealed the fearful consequences of mass literacy: once technologies expand, noted Lieber, so do their abuses. Highlighting the links between credit, commerce, fraud, and “the art of writing,” Lieber...

  6. Part Two Literacy in the Early Penitentiary

    • Chapter 3 “What Shall a Convict Do?”: Reading and Reformation in Philadelphia’s Early Penitentiaries
      (pp. 89-138)

      In 1795 Joseph Price was sentenced to eight years in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street prison for counterfeiting a ten-dollar bank note. A decade earlier, Price might have been sentenced to death; instead, Price was ordered to “undergo an Imprisonment in the Jail & penitentiary house of Philadelphia for the term of eight years, … be kept in the solitary cells of the said Prison for eight Months of the time” and to compensate the state for the costs of his prosecution. Pardoned after two years, Price was discharged “on condition of leaving the state not to return.”¹ No printers, editors, or ministers...

    • Chapter 4 Written by One Who Knows: Congregate Literacy in New York Prisons
      (pp. 139-181)

      “These are not the last declarations of a dyingthief,nor of a penitentmurderer;nor are they the speculations of an ambitious politician,” proclaimed an anonymous former convict, who in 1823 launched a declaration of literary independence from the genres that dominated prisoners in print. As his aptly titled book promised, the inmate author offered the public something new:Inside Out: or, An Interior View of the New-York State Prison; Together with Biographical Sketches of the Lives of Several of the Convicts…. By One Who Knows.¹ With his title and preface, the author (widely recognized as William Coffey) sought...

  7. Afterword Good Convict, Good Citizen?
    (pp. 182-186)

    Early penitentiary education discourse departed markedly from contemporary discourse by rarely associating literacy with either “freedom” or access to citizenship. In the early national era, literacy and literacy acquisition sought to make prisoners better convicts, and even this modest benefit was disputed among defenders of the prison. For each authority who praised the “spirit of emulation” or “rigid discipline” or “revival feeling” in a prison school, others chided the efforts as misguided, wasteful, and naive.¹ When Gershom Powers proposed, with some hesitation, that Auburn’s prison schools could make “better men, and eventually better citizens,” Elam Lynds counterargued that education instead...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 187-220)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 221-236)
  10. Index
    (pp. 237-250)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-254)