Border crossing, razor wire, transformation: words and images that pervade writing about prison literacy and pedagogy. Although literacy programs in prison have existed for decades, it is only during the last twenty years or so that scholarship in this area has begun to increase. What has also increased is the number of incarcerated American citizens; this number is currently over two million (One in One Hundred). Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of those incarcerated have lower literacy rates than the general population; the connections between incarceration, poverty and low levels of literacy have been well documented (Jacobi, “Foreword”). The need for literacy programs for the most marginalized and stigmatized members of our community as well as access to information, research and scholarship about the practice and theoretical understanding of teaching in carceral environments seems clear. The purpose of this brief synthesis essay is to provide an overview of the more recent scholarship on prison literacies and pedagogies. For the purposes of this essay, I have sorted the work into four groups: 1) materials that reflect on the experience of teaching in a correctional facility setting; 2) overviews of specific programs; 3) material investigating inmate literacy/literacies; and 4) edited collections of inmate writing. Negotiating the experience of teaching in the often tense prison environment and the competing demands of the prison, the school, or the workshop setting can be a bewildering experience for novice and veteran prison teachers alike. These resources all provide useful and important background material for prison teachers and researchers.
It is important to have a clear picture of the prison population and their literacy needs as well as an understanding of the history of the prison system and the place of writing within that system. Detailed information and statistics about prison literacy can be found at the website of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy and Literacy Among Prison Inmates, a comprehensive 2003 study that assessed literacy in state and federal prisons. “Literacy Behind Prison Walls,” a 1994 study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics as part of the National Adult Literacy Survey, although dated, also provides relevant information. Additionally, Prison Literacy: Implications for Programs and Assessment, a report from the National Center for Adult Literacy, provides important historical material and an overview of what the writers of the report believe to be a workable, sustainable model of a prison literacy program. The Bureau of Justice Statistics website offers a wealth of information about the US prison [End Page 135] system. Finally, H. Bruce Franklin’s Prison Writing in 20thCentury America, which is both a collection of inmate writing and a historical overview of the American prison system with emphasis on the evolution of inmate writing, is an invaluable resource for understanding both the history of the American penal system and the evolution of inmate writing.
Additionally, the 2004 winter edition of Reflections: A Journal of Writing, Service Learning and Community Literacy special issue devoted to “Prison Literacies, Narratives and Community Connections” guest edited by Tobi Jacobi and Patricia E. O’Connor offers the opportunity to foreground the “complexities of ‘how it is’ for prison writers” and to explore the difficulty of “negotiating student and teacher agency in prisons, shaped by many individual stakeholders with disparate goals and interests” (Jacobi 2). The special issue includes a diverse array of material: inmate stories, essays, poems and artwork, articles addressing creative writing and drama workshops, university/prison collaborations and service-learning programs, as well as book reviews and an exhaustive bibliography of print, electronic and film resources. Several of the resources mentioned in this essay are in this issue of Reflections; all of the articles in the special issue are useful and important. Although now eight years old, the Reflections special issue is an invaluable resource for anyone for anyone currently teaching in or contemplating teaching in a carceral environment.
Not surprisingly, given the intense and complex nature of the experience, the largest body of work on prison teaching and literacies is devoted to personal accounts and narratives of the experience of teaching in prisons or jails. Two of these—Richard Shelton’s Crossing the Yard: Thirty Years as a...