Prison literature is a genre characterized by works that are written while the author is incarcerated. The literature can be about prison, informed by it, or simply coincidentally written while in prison. Famous works of prison literature that spring to mind are: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, and Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. A lot of these authors were political prisoners, and it is precisely their imprisonment and confinement that brings into sharp focus the threat of political oppression, censorship, as well as the ethical or commercial barriers in the publication of these works. Honestly, the scandalous nature of publishing such works only lends to the fascination with and desire to read the literature.
One of the striking themes that fascinate admirers of the genre is how prison experience informs the works of certain authors. The stories of redemption, recidivism, or bravery in the face of utter despair are what intrigue and draw us in. Consider Oscar Wilde’s moving letter De Profundis, written during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol for ‘gross indecency’, on spirituality and faith from the depths of despair and degradation. This intensely personal examination of Wilde’s journey during incarceration displays a mastery of language and a profound understanding of the human psyche that encourages the reader to meditate upon their own lives and journeys. Such inspirational stories display the cathartic and reflective power of literature and its potential influence. On the other hand, political prisoners that have produced literature describing their experiences and their participation in political activity in criticism of their governments possess a bold and indignant tone under it’s illusion of contemplative reflection that I consider admirable and intriguing, such as Nelson Mandela’s memoir Long Walk to Freedom.
Although select works in prison literature have been placed on a pedestal and are revered for their insight and alluring qualities, most incarcerated art doesn’t make it outside the confines of a cell. Although the limited supply of works in the genre adds to its enticement, prison literature is changing in the twenty-first century and has begun to sing a different tune.
While some prisoners are guilty of heinous crimes and deserve punishment, many serving time are nonviolent offenders, addicts, and the mentally ill that need a cathartic emotional outlet. Boasting it’s rehabilitative qualities and ability to “turn negative energy into something positive”, writing workshops and regular engagement with literature have been introduced to many prison facilities in order to offer the incarcerated a positive alternative and help them to connect and share their feelings. “Stepping out of one’s everyday reality and into confinement brings a quietness that allows for true reflection and insight, the pillars of good writing,” Laura Pepper Wu, an editor of The Write Life Magazine says, while also offering prisoners a boost in “positive esteem, identity, and self-worth.”
With the change in mode of production of prison literature, will the rebellious quality in prison literature disappear? Is prison literature doomed to be a genre overwhelmed with the same themes of reflection, regret, and defeat? Or will it provide a whole new avenue of creative literature?