G.03: Writing the Self: From within/without Imprisonment

Reviewed by Laura Rogers, Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, Albany, NY (laura.rogers@acphs.edu

Chair: Mark Wenger, Columbia International University, Columbia, SC

Speakers: Helen Lee, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC, “Rhetorical Bordering in the American Prison System”
Alexis Baker, Kent State University, Kent, OH, “Finding a Space: Ethos, Self and Survivance in Women’s Holocaust Art”
Mark Wenger, Columbia International University, Columbia, SC, “Writing the Self: From Within/Without Imprisonment”

As a prison literacy researcher and teacher, I make a point to attend panels in the emerging field of prison literacies and pedagogies. The panelists in session G.03 made fascinating connections between seemingly disparate forms of prison writing: writing produced in a post-secondary prison program, work by a published and well-known formerly incarcerated writer, and women’s Holocaust art. These connections point to interesting new directions prison literacy research might take. Each presenter framed his or her work with a theoretical construct—either Michel Foucault and Paulo Freire’s border rhetoric or Gerald Vizenor’s survivance theory—in order to explore ideas of self-care and identity. All three presenters offered a fresh perspective on the work of incarcerated writers. 

Paulo Freire’s ideas of emancipatory pedagogy are frequently invoked in discussions of prison writing pedagogy; Wenger, however, used Freire’s work in an original way by asking, “What role can academic writing play in emancipatory care of the self?” Wenger, a teacher in an Associate of Arts program at Kirkland Correctional Institution in South Carolina administered by Columbia International University, drew on Foucault’s late-career ideas of care of the self, Freire’s ideas about emancipatory pedagogy, and classical rhetoric’s parrhesia(speaking candidly or frankly) to address that complex question. 

Wenger provided the audience with information and statistics about the successful and unique program at Kirkland (more than 90% of the students who have enrolled in the program have completed it), that prepares alumni to serve as chaplain assistants in correctional facilities throughout the state of South Carolina. Despite the success of the program, Wenger noted that half of the program alumni will either die in prison or be paroled as senior citizens; this realization led Wenger to consider the important question, “What role does liberation look like for one serving a life sentence without hope of parole?” Wenger used an anecdote from his earliest days of prison teaching to explore an answer to that complex and difficult question. 

Wenger related that, to his great dismay, he had mistakenly assigned George Orwell’s “A Hanging” for his very first prison class. Wenger was initially unaware of this and was perplexed by the uncomfortable silence in the classroom. After Wenger learned of the faux pas, he took the opportunity to have a frank and transparent discussion with the men about what was transpiring in the classroom. This became a pivotal moment forparrhesiasticaction as well as a Freirean moment of conscientization. The rhetorical concept of "parrhesia" means to speak candidly or frankly; the ability to speak frankly in the classroom allowed Wenger's students to begin the process of "conscientization," or a movement towards developing social awareness through reflection and action (Freire Institute, 2015). Wenger then began to intentionally assign the essay to his incarcerated students, describing the circumstances of his first day of teaching to them as an introduction to an orientation towards the act of writing for academic purposes and a realization of the need for parrhesiasticaction in prison teaching. Wenger noted that “Critically informed emancipatory pedagogy in prison writing programs vivifies what it means to employ writing as a means of living well within the prisons that we all find ourselves in, whether literal or figural.” 

Wenger ended with a much-needed call for research in prison pedagogy and literacy, and for us to “consider and further our critical consciousness of what it is we are doing.” Wenger rightfully noted that incarcerated writers offer a rich opportunity for literacy research of the highest, most complex levels, a challenge our field has only begun to take up.

Prisons are places of unmistakable borders: razor wire fences, distinct uniforms for the incarcerated and those who guard them, guard towers and guns that prevent escape. Lee, however, drew on border studies and the work of well-known writer, Jimmy Santiago Baca, to investigate carceral spaces as not only material but symbolic bordered spaces. Lee argued that Baca’s work, which builds on the work of Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa (2012), portrays the contemporary prison as a borderland that is seemingly demarcated for racial minorities and a place of emotional and mental suffering which can be transcended through the power of literacy and writing.

Lee used Baca’s (2002) memoir, A Place to Stand, which narrates his childhood of poverty and illiteracy and his discovery of the power of poetry while writing in prison as the basis for her discussion of how border rhetorics shape prisons and prisoners. Lee defined Baca’s memoir as a work of “public discourse in which important arguments about citizenship are discussed;” the book also explores how incarcerated citizens “confront and challenge the symbolic ‘bordering’ of their spaces.” Prison, a site of psychological and emotional suffering that can exceed the physical suffering inflicted by incarceration, reflects the metaphorical prison of poverty and racism Baca, his ancestors, and his ethnic community experienced. Lee pointed out that Baca makes these comparisons explicit when he “links the physical isolation of imprisonment to the social isolation he felt as a citizen of color.” Lee uses the definition of the prison as a borderland designated for racial minorities to make connections to Anzaldúa (2012), who defines the borderland as a destructive psychological space, a “symbolic bordering of identities” that invokes the unsafe, destructive space of prison that has failed in its task of reform and/or rehabilitation.

Lee commented on the history of the American penal system and its failure to achieve goals of rehabilitation and reform, which is reflected in the high recidivism rate (51%). She also noted how Baca’s memoir powerfully illustrates this failure through his focus on the emotional, psychological and social deprivations of prison. Baca’s work testifies, however, that the bordered space of prison can be transformed through writing that resists the degradation of one’s identity and provides a sense of belonging to family, community, and lastly, the nation. Lee’s exploration of Baca’s well-known memoir reminded the audience that the work of incarcerated writers, while often narrating personal transformations, can also address pressing issues of social justice and civil rights.

The third speaker, Baker, posed an extremely important question to the audience: “What defines a prisoner?” In her fascinating exploration of women’s Holocaust art, Baker compared Holocaust artwork to prison writing because “concentration camps are prisons without criminals.” Baker pointed out that Holocaust writing and art have many similarities to prison writing, such as “declarations of identity/self,” the re-framing of identity and the re-writing of lives and selves, and use of the arts as a “dignifying tool.” Rather than focusing on Holocaust writing, however, Baker focused on the much less well-known genre of “representations of women by women in Holocaust art.” Baker explained that she focused on art because visuals can articulate an experience that is beyond words. Baker used examples of black and white depictions of women by women incarcerated in concentration camps to powerfully make her point. 

Baker opened with a personal anecdote that both engaged the audience and framed her presentation. Baker had been stunned by an intricately fashioned brassiere made in a concentration camp that was displayed in the Maltz Museum of Jewish History’s special exhibit “Spots of Light: To Be a Woman in the Holocaust” (2013), which featured artifacts such as drawings, artwork and clothing. To Baker, the beautiful and intimate garment was a statement of identify for the woman who created it. Baker defined the brassiere as evidence of Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps’s (1996) idea of the self, which is “an unfolding reflective awareness of being in the world, including a sense of one’s past and future” (p. 21). Baker also drew on Vizenor's ideas of survivance and Jacqueline Jones Royster’s theories of lived experience as ethos to explore how women’s Holocaust art explores ideas of narrative, identity, and ethos. 

Baker used the women’s art to explore ideas of women as rhetors and narrators; as Jessica Enoch (2013) reminded us, we need “histories that recover the work of female rhetors and rhetoricians” (p. 58). Baker argues that the work of these women needs to be an important chapter in the kind of recovery work Enoch advocated. Baker shared examples of art by both male and female Holocaust artists that demonstrated that art works can be “survival/survivance narrative artifacts.” The three examples of women’s art Baker displayed, all depicting women, one depicting the woman with her children, showed that women Holocaust artists presented themselves as “having a strong sense of community and an intact sense of identity.” Male Holocaust artists tended to present themselves as “degraded, emaciated, and isolated.” The women artists of the Holocaust, like the maker of the beautifully made brassiere, remind us that there is not just one Holocaust narrative, but many that are waiting to be heard.

The discussion following the panel focused on intriguing questions of connections between Holocaust art and the writing Wenger’s students produced in their college programs (Wenger characterized work by incarcerated writers as “problematized, critical writing that pushes back”) included differences in teaching male and female incarcerated writers, issues of border crossing for prison writing teachers and literacy workers, and questions of differing senses of community in men and women prisoners. The three panelists suggested new ways of using critical theory to consider the work of incarcerated writers and in formulating pedagogical strategies for teaching in prison as well as a new definition of who may be considered a prisoner. I left the panel feeling energized and positive about the future direction of prison literacy studies.


Anzaldúa, Gloria. (2012). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestizo (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books.

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. (2002). A place to stand. New York, NY: Grove Press.

Enoch, Jessica. (2013). Releasing hold: Feminist historiography without the tradition. In Michelle Ballif (Ed.), Theorizing histories of rhetoric (pp. 58–73). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Freire Institute. (2015). Concepts used by Paulo Freire. Retrieved December 22, 2015, from http://www.freire.org/paulo-freire/concepts-used-by-paulo-freire/

Ochs, Elinor, & Capps, Lisa. (1996). Narrating the self. Annual Review of Anthropology, 25, 19–43. 

Spots of light: To be a woman in the Holocaust (Museum exhibit). (2013). The Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage: The Museum of Diversity and Tolerance. Beachwood, OH.


Created by HannahCeo. Last Modification: Thursday December 31, 2015 17:30:02 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.