A Student Roundtable on Prison Abolition and Imprisonment Writing

Article excerpt

PAUL LAI: In spring 2009, I offered a junior-level English seminar on Literatures of American Imprisonment, a course that surveyed writing that emerges from or reflects on various historical moments and forms of captivity. Rather than considering such imprisonment as anomalous to the United States of America, the course forwarded an argument about the constitutive quality of such captivity for American national character. We read captivity narratives from colonial America in the contact between European and Native Americans; African American slave narratives; Indian boarding school memoirs; Japanese American internment poetry; contemporary prison writing and neo-abolitionist discourse; and poetry from the Guantanamo Bay prison detainees. While the readings covered a span of over three hundred years, we read them out of chronological order to avoid creating a progressive narrative of increasing freedom or decreasing restrictions on the individual body. Instead, we considered how imprisonment has functioned variously to delimit who belongs to the national body and where boundaries can be drawn for the nation-state.

The class began with a focused consideration of prison abolition by way of Angela Y. Davis's succinct, provocative Are Prisons Obsolete? and selections from Joy James's anthology The New Abolitionists that set the terms of discussion for the semester along the lines of the prison industrial complex, abolition democracy, and neo-slavery. As an English class, we also focused on discussing how the forms of poetry, the personal essay, the argumentative essay, and the memoir offer particular modes of expression for much of contemporary prison discussions.

In what follows, four students from that class reflect on their initial responses to the concept of prison abolition; consider their understanding of what prison abolition tries to address in terms of social issues; examine how personal narratives work powerfully to make prison abolition seem more possible; and connect prison abolition discourse to longer histories of imprisonment writing. They also mention what aspects of the course's pedagogical activities seemed most or least helpful in broaching the topic of imprisonment writing.

Over the course of early January 2010, these students posted their thoughts on an online discussion board and responded to each other's comments. We then collaboratively edited a transcript of that conversation on a wiki page along with a couple of in-person conversations to plan and take stock of our revisions. Our hope is that readers of this roundtable discussion will take away a better sense of how students actually respond to a course on imprisonment writing. The discussion reveals, in the students' own words, how they engaged with the critical discourse of prison abolition, both in accepting some of its claims and in pushing against others. The roundtable format also emphasizes the different perspectives of the four students rather than suggesting a generic response that may be attributable to all students.

ELIZABETH CORR: As I become more exposed to the ideas, solutions, and thought processes behind prison abolition, I find myself becoming more accepting and supportive of prison abolition. It is all a matter of being educated on the matter enough to understand it as a possibility and legitimate alternative to our current system of imprisonment.

By looking at texts such as the African American slave narratives, Indian boarding school memoirs, and Japanese American internment poetry, the class really focused on multiple forms of imprisonment in order to understand who a prisoner is and who is affected by imprisonment. This was an important place to start in a setting such as the University of St. Thomas, a private Catholic university with a solid regional reputation as a business college, because many of the people in the class, including myself, are young middle to upper class Caucasians who have not necessarily had much contact with the prison system and therefore do not consider the far-reaching effects of that system in our society. …