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America Is the Prison

Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s

Lee Bernstein

Publication Year: 2010

In this book, Bernstein explores the correctional, political, social, and aesthetic forces that prompted the rise of the “prison arts renaissance” of the 1970s. Bernstein also traces how, in turn, this movement inside prisons influenced American culture as the words and ideas of incarcerated writers, performers, and artists found their way to the Broadway stage, cinema, bestseller lists, and major museum exhibitions. Paradoxically, this movement was embedded in and informed by a cultural and political transformation taking shape inside America’s prisons at the precise moment when state and federal policy makers turned toward a “get tough on crime” approach. Bernstein addresses not only the ways in which incarcerated people living in this changing climate used writing, performance, and visual art while in prison, but also how the works they created influenced teaching, publishing, protest movements, and cultural life outside prison walls. Furthermore, a significant number of artists continued to teach or create meaningful works after they left prison. Given its timeliness as relates to public debate about American and international prisons, as well as Bernstein's evenhanded prose, this work will be useful for academics, students, and other readers interested in criminal justice, African American history, cultural history, and American studies.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press


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pp. 1-1


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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-xiv

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pp. 1-18

Prisons are really an extension of our communities. We have people who are forced at gunpoint to live behind concrete and steel. Others of us, in what we ordinarily think of as the community, live at gunpoint again in almost the same conditions. The penitentiaries...

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1. WE SHALL HAVE ORDER: The Cultural Politics of Law and Order

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pp. 19-50

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon made Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark, a target of his “law-andorder” campaign strategy. In accepting the GOP nomination at his party’s national convention...

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2. THE AGE OF JACKSON: George Jackson and the Radical Critique of Incarceration

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pp. 51-74

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, conservative politicians steered the national debate regarding criminal justice policy toward increasing repression. At the same time, the culture of American prisons became increasingly...

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3. WHAT WORKS?: Reform and Repression in Prison Programs

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pp. 75-98

As the culmination of their immersion in radical political theory and prison activism, the Attica Brothers reacted to and amplified the goals spearheaded on the West Coast. In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, correctional authorities...

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4. WE TOOK THE WEIGHT: Incarcerated Writers and Artists in the Black Arts Movement

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pp. 99-128

During the 1970s prison rehabilitative efforts seemed to narrow to the point where trying to scare people straight was the most visible prison program in the country. At the same time, alternative visions of prison...

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5. CELL BLOCK THEATER: Entertainment, Liberation, and the Politics of Prison Theater

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pp. 129-150

In the spring of 1979 the Center for the Advanced Study in Theatre Arts (CASTA) at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center held a conference on theater in prison.1 The event featured a spirited and divided debate about the goals...

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6. RADICAL CHIC: Jack Henry Abbott and the Decline of Prison Programming

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pp. 151-172

On a Wednesday evening in 1970, ninety New Yorkers gathered in a Park Avenue apartment for an event that would presage the decline of prisoners’ cultural influence. George Jackson had not yet been killed or the Attica rioters massacred; Angela Davis...

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pp. 173-184

In 1924 Huddie Ledbetter played a concert at the Sugar Land Prison Farm for the governor of Texas. Ledbetter, who would go on to international celebrity as “Lead Belly,” was doing time as “Walter Boyd,” the name he assumed after escaping from a previous prison...


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pp. 185-214


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pp. 215-224

E-ISBN-13: 9781469604046
E-ISBN-10: 1469604043
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807833872
Print-ISBN-10: 0807833878

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 658201602
MUSE Marc Record: Download for America Is the Prison

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Subject Headings

  • Prisoners as artists -- United States.
  • Arts, American -- 20th century.
  • Arts -- Political aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Arts and society -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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