Speaking of Crime: Narratives of Prisoners

Speaking of Crime: Narratives of Prisoners

Speaking of Crime: Narratives of Prisoners

Speaking of Crime: Narratives of Prisoners


Speaking of Crime explores how inmates speak of their lives and in particular how they speak of crime. What is the power of speech for prisoners? What do their uses of pronouns and choices of verbs reveal about them, their experiences of violence, their relationships with other prisoners, and their likelihood for change? In this fascinating book, Patricia E. O'Connor probes beneath the surface of prison speech by examining over one hundred taped accounts of narratives of violence made by African-American inmates of a U.S. maximum security prison. The inmates' manner of speaking about their lives and acts of violence -- not just what they talk about but how they talk about it -- supplies important clues to their senses of identity and feelings of agency. The use of second-person pronouns when speaking about themselves and a reliance on distinctive verbal devices such as irony and constructed dialogue provide important insights into the way prisoners see their world and help condition how they interact with it.


Language inside the prison setting strikes harshly and yet poignantly for "outsiders," who can come and go from such walled settings. As I invite you inside the world of prisoner discourse, consider below two statements chosen to illustrate these points:

If you're afraid to die, this is the wrong place to be. You've got to come back. There are no new conversations here.

The first of these utterances was spoken on a videotape in a classroom drama course, toward the end of an experience narrative about prison life. The speaker was telling the class how he was stabbed inside the prison, emphasizing how prisoners must be ready to fight to the death for their survival. The second comment was spoken in a phone conversation over 15 years ago, after the prison course I had been teaching had ended. "You've got to come back" began a plea for discursive opportunities, something that showed more than a mere desire to break the boredom. Intuitively, that prisoner appears to have realized the power of exchanging new words, new ideas with others in the formation of new ways of thinking. The request for new conversations came before I began my research project interviewing prisoners and collecting their life stories. The warning about being ready for dying came after the interviews had been completed. The tensions between those two lines (and between those two times) clearly illustrate the danger in, and yet the need for, new ways of reaching into the worlds of crime and punishment.

The Need to Speak of Crime

The many years inmates spend in prison parallel the long, unconcerned, and counterproductive silence by the world beyond the bars, gates, and walls. In over 15 years of working with prisoners in a maximum security prison, I have learned a great deal about time . . .

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