Katy Ryan

I envision this class as a philosophical, political, and literary exploration of the U.S. prison system, primarily through twentieth-century American literary texts. The class emerges from some dismal facts and some hopeful developments. First, the dismal facts: the United States imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world, with over two million people living behind bars; more black American men are locked up today than are in college; women are the largest growing population in prison; supermaximums, created in the 1980s, deny inmates all human contact; and four million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised because of felony convictions. But there are hopeful signs, including a strong movement against mandatory minimum sentences, participated in by federal judges; ongoing state moratoria on the death penalty; and the implementation of alternative sentencing programs based on restorative models of justice. Our state of incarceration has resulted in the emergence of a new body of American literature. Bell Chevigny writes in her introduction to a recent PEN anthology, “The writing coming out of U.S. prisons has never been as strong, rich, diverse, and provocative as in the final quarter of the twentieth century.”    
In Part One, we will look at the history of prisons–when and where and why they emerged and how they have transformed. We will discuss economic considerations, both in terms of the for-profit prison industry and in terms of the corporate use of inmates’ labor. We will also address one of the most costly, in every way, prison practices: capital punishment. To conclude this section, we will read two memoirs that address, among other things, the persistence of racism in our legal system. Part Two will constitute the bulk of our reading, which comes from imaginative literature—novels, short stories, plays, and poems. In Part Three, we will look briefly at recent developments in the struggle to reform or abolish prisons. The literature of imprisonment is an enormous field, and some areas of study will necessarily be neglected. You are, of course, welcome to pursue these areas in your own research.

In addition to the observations you bring to the table each week, we will consider both literary and social questions: What might be the parameters for the genre, “prison literature”? How does it compare to other generic literary classifications? What might the field of literature contribute to discussions about public policy? To what extent does Foucault’s analysis of modern systems of surveillance apply to prisons in the United States? What impact should international standards of justice, like those articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, have on the administration of American prisons, domestically and abroad? What should be the role of victims and victims’ families in the criminal justice system? To what extent do literary texts expose or perpetuate the lie that we must sympathize either with prisoners or with victims of crime, not with both, a divide that undermines our reason and our ability to make the changes necessary to reduce violent crime and reverse the devastation of mass imprisonment.

In November, we will have two guest speakers–Delbert Tibbs, a poet who was sentenced to die in Florida and exonerated after three years on death row, and my father, Bill Ryan, who helped to organize the moratorium on executions in Illinois and continues to advocate on behalf of men and women in prison.



We will have student presentations almost every week. There are three basic options for these presentations. If you have other suggestions, let me know. 




a)  Traditional Presentation. An introduction to the material at the beginning of class (about 20 minutes), outlining what you found important, confusing, wrong, or otherwise worth discussing. This option should conclude with one or two specific questions for the class.

b)  Performance. A fifteen-minute performance that enacts for us your interpretation of critical or creative texts. Be as experimental as you would like, using props, rearranging the classroom, enlisting audience members, etc.

c)  Resident experts. You begin class with a five-minute introduction, then serve as a springboard throughout the class, offering additional thoughts, moving the conversation in new directions, and summing up when necessary.

Keep in mind that you are not obliged to cover all the reading for any particular week but rather are expected to look closely at aspects of the material that interest you.

Every week (except for the final week of class, the week when you give a presentation, and the week you’re too tired), you will post a response to the readings on our listserve. These informal, 500-word responses are a way for you to consolidate some thoughts before we meet. Please post at least a day before the class meeting, so we all have time to read them. Also, bring a hard copy of your response to class.

If interested, one or two students may volunteer to keep the class updated on recent events related to our studies. For instance, you might report to us about plays, television shows, or movies that contain representations of prisons. Or you might focus on political news, such as the detainees at the US naval base in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba, who were deemed “enemy combatants” and thus, initially, found to be outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. civilian courts. Alternately, you might report on people incarcerated for civil disobedience (Kathy Kelly, co-founder of Voices in the Wilderness, is now serving time at a federal prison for her protests against the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Once you have chosen your subject(s) and talked with me, you can begin posting on our listserve your analyses and reflections. You might also alert the class to related articles or websites. This option will substitute for six of the weekly responses.

Two ten-page research essays on subjects of your choosing, due Oct 20 and at the end of the semester. In class the week before these essays are due, you will have a chance to discuss your topic with other students.


James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, The Exonerated. New York: Faber & Faber, 2003.
Angela Davis. Are Prisons Obsolete? New York: Seven Stories P, 2003.
Don DeGrazia, American Skin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Michel Foucault. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Edition. Trans. Alan Sheridan.
        New York: Vintage, 1995.
H. Bruce Franklin, ed. Prison Writing in 20th-century America. New York: Penguin 1998.
Joseph Hallinan. Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation
Marsha Norman. Getting Out. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1978.
David M. Oshinsky. “Worse Than Slavery”: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice.
        New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996.
Manuel Pinero, Short Eyes. New York: Hill & Wang, 1975.
Sr. Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking. New York: Vintage, 1996.
Assata Shakur. Assata. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1987.
John Wideman. Brothers and Keepers. New York: Vintage, 1984.




AVAILABLE ON E-RESERVE (; username: ryan2; password 580)
David Garland. Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. 1-23; 121-122.

Lucia Zedner. “Wayward Sisters: The Prison for Women.” Oxford History of the Prison: the Practice of Punishment in Western Society. Eds. Norval Morris and David Rothman. 295-324

Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, eds. Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment. New York: New Press, 2002. 50-58;79-94;136-149.

Albert Camus. “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Trans. Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage, 1960. 175-234.

Vijay Prashad, Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses. Cambridge: South End P, 2003. 69-121.

Bell Gale Chevigny, ed. Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1999. 97-127.

Norval Morris. Moconochie’s Gentlemen: The Story of Norfolk Island and the Roots of

Modern Prison Reform. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. 197-213.

Michael Feith. “ ‘The Benefit of the Doubt’: Openness and Closure in Brothers and Keepers.” Callaloo 22.3 (1999): 665-675.

Tim Mitchell. “Notes from Inside: Forum Theatre in Maximum Security.” Theatre 31.3 (2001).

Dwight Conquergood. “Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty,” Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002): 339-367.

William Alexander. “Inside Out: From Inside Prison Out to Youth.” Drama Review 40.4 (1996): 85-93.

David Garland. Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. 53-73.

Assata Shakur. Interview with Rosemari Mealy.

“Affirming the Right to be a Revolutionary: Interview with Assata.” Moving Beyond Boundaries: Black Women’s Diasporas. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies. New York UP, 1994.

H. Bruce Franklin. “Malcolm Braly: Novelist of the American Prison.” Contemporary Literature 18 (1977): 217-40.

George Ryan. Forward, Hands Off Cain Report 2003

From Doing Time–Introduction; 35-37; 237

Jack Henry Abbot, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison
Mumia Abu-Jamal, Live from Death Row
Nelson Algren, The Devil’s Stocking
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room and The Fire Next Time
John Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and Architecture in 18th-C. England
Jeremy Bentham, Panoptican, Letters and Postscript to the Panoptican
Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist
Daniel Burton-Rose, The Ceiling of America
Albert Camus, Neither an Executioner nor a Victim
John Cheever, Falconer
Bell Gale Chevigney, ed. Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing
Ted Conover, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
Barbara Deming, Prisons That Could Not Hold
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skins, White Masks
Dawson Fielding, No Man’s Land [out of print]
H. Bruce Franklin, Prison Literature in America
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Writings (1910-1920)
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Chester Himes, Yesterday Will Make You Cry
Victor Hugo. The Last Days of a Condemned Man
George Jackson. Soledad, Brother: Prison Letters of George Jackson
Gayl Jones. Eva’s Man
Etheridge Knight, The Essential Etheridge Knight
Norman Mailer, Executioner’s Song and Armies of the Night
Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Jerome Miller, Last One over the Wall
Huey Newton, Revolutionary Suicide
Christian Parenti, Lockdown America
Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance
David Protess and Robert Warren, A Promise of Justice: the 14-Year Fight to Save Four Innocent Men
Manuel Puig, Kiss of the Spiderwoman
Nawal Sadawi, et. al., Memoirs from the Women’s Prison
Nawal Sadawi, Woman at Point Zero
Barry Scheck, Peter Neufeld, and Jim Dwyer, Actual Innocence
Wole Soyinka, Shuttle in the Crypt
J. Jerry Sylvia, Pardon My Convicts: Memoirs of a Prison Warden
Henry David Thoreau, “On Civil Disobedience”
Jean Trounstine, Shakespeare Behind Bars: Power of Drama in a Woman’s Prison
David Von Ehle, Among the Lowest of the Dead: The Culture of Death Row

Cool Hand Luke, Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967
Dancer in the Dark, Dir. Lars Von Trier, 2000
Dead Man Walking, Dir. Tim Robbins, 1995
Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Dir. Hector Babenco 1985
Romero, Dir. John Duigan, 1989
Shawshank Redemption, Dir. Frank Darabont, 1994
Weeds, Dir. John Hancock, 1987

  1)   H. Bruce Franklin’s homepage at Rutgers

  2) “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Convict”
      by H. Bruce Franklin (on Chester Himes)

  3)   PEN American Center

  4)  Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation

  5)   Death Penalty Information Center

      Guantanomo Article on 
Commondreams website

  7)  Universal Declaration of Human Rights



  8)  International Gramsci Society



  9)  Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama



10)  Southern Center for Human Rights



11)  Monthly newspaper on legal issues

12)  Bibliographies and commentaries on literature and social issues 
(link to our syllabus)

13)  US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics







August 23











August 30
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 1-69, 195-228; 293-308
David Garland, Culture of Control, 1-23, 121-122 (EReserve); 53-73 (handout)
Lucia Zedner, “Wayward Sisters: The Prison for Women.” Oxford History of the Prison, 295-324

September 6  Labor Day



September 13
David Oshinsky, “Worse than Slavery,” Prologue, Chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, Epilogue
H. Bruce Franklin, Introduction to Prison Writing, 1-18
Autobiography of an Imprisoned Peon, in Prison Writing, 21-29
Songs of the Prison Plantation, Prison Writing, 29-34
Kate Richards O’Hare, from Crime and Criminals in Prison Writing, 74-89

Marc Mauer, “Mass Imprisonment and the Disappearing Voters,” Invisible Punishment, 50-58.

September 20
Sr. Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking
Albert Camus, “Reflections on the Guillotine”
Dwight Conquergood. “Lethal Theatre: Performance, Punishment, and the Death Penalty”
George Ryan, Forward, Hands Off Cain Report 2003


September 27
Assata Shakur, Assata
Rosemari Mealy, “Affirming the Right to be a Revolutionary: Interview with Assata”
George Jackson, excerpt from Soledad, Brother in Prison Writing, 155-166

Vijay Prashad, Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses, 69-121

October 4

John Wideman, Brothers and Keepers
Michael Feith, “ ‘The Benefit of the Doubt’: Openness and Closure in Brothers and Keepers.” 
        Callaloo 22.3 (1999): 665-675
Renaldo Hudson, et. al., Lockdown Prison Heart



October 11  
from Prison Writing, 230-258 (Etheridge Knight through Jackie Ruzas)
from Doing Time, 97-127 (on EReserve) Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Coming into Language”;  
        Bedford Hills Writing Workshop, “Tetrina” and “Sestina”; Paul St. John, “Behind the Mirror’s Face”; 
        Michael E. Saucier, “Black Flag to the Rescue.”
Judith Clark, “After My Arrest” (handout) 
Proposals (250 words) for First Essay


October 18
James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk
Patricia McConnel, “Sing Soft, Sing Loud,” Prison Writing 296-306

FIRST ESSAY DUE by Wed. at 4PM in my mailbox or under office door

October 25
Malcolm Braly, On the Yard
H. Bruce Franklin, “Malcolm Braly: Novelist of the American Prison”

November 1
Don DeGrazia, American Skin


November 8
Guest Speakers: Delbert Tibbs and Bill Ryan
Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen, The Exonerated

David Protess and Robert Warren, A Promise of Justice


November 15
Marsha Norman, Getting Out
Meda Chesney-Lind, “Imprisoning Women: The Unintended Victims of Mass Imprisonment,” 
        Invisible Punishment, 79-94
Angela Davis, Is Prison Obsolete, Chapter 4
from Doing Time (handouts), Diane Hamill Metzger, “The Manipulation Game: Doing Life in Pennsylvania”

Beth E. Richie, “The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women,” Invisible Punishment, 136-149


November 29
Miguel Pinero, Short Eyes
William Alexander, “Inside Out: From Inside Prison Out to Youth.” Drama Review 40.4 (1996): 85-93.
Tim Mitchell, “Notes from Inside: Forum Theatre in Maximum Security.” Theatre 31.3 (2001).

                  RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

December 6
Joseph Hallinan, Going Up the River
Angela Davis, Is Prison Obsolete? Chapters 3 and 6
Norval Morris, Maconochie’s Gentleman, 197-213
Jimmy Santiago Baca, “Past Present,” Prison Writing 358-363
Proposals for Final Essay

Final Essay Due on Dec. 10

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