UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Narratives of conversion and coercion : American prison life writing since 1945 Rolston, Simon


In this dissertation, I consider the relationship between the rhetoric of conversion that informs the American prison system and the pervasive use of the conversion narrative in the life writing of American prisoners. I argue that ever since the first penitentiary opened its gates at the beginning of the nineteenth century, prison reformers have relied on the conversion narrative to redefine the rehabilitative goals of the modern prison. Prison reformers, moreover, have historically deployed a variety of strategies—indeterminate sentencing, the “mark system,” the parole board, and the prison file—to ensure that prisoners articulate their experiences behind bars according to a conversion paradigm. Reflecting the master discourse of the American prison system, the prison life writing archive contains myriad versions of the conversion story, particularly in the post-war period when conversion was reconfigured as “rehabilitation” and prisoners had to define themselves as rehabilitated before they could be released from prison. Hence I explore how the ideology of the prison is implicated in the life writing of prisoners and ex-prisoners who have achieved a notable, or notorious, visibility in American culture: Jimmy Santiago Baca (A Place to Stand), Jack Henry Abbott (In the Belly of the Beast), and James Carr (Bad). More importantly, I show how these writers complicate any notion that prison life is inherently emancipatory. Some prisoners and ex-prisoners reinscribe the ideology of the American prison system by shaping their narratives according to the conversion paradigm. But others use the conversion narrative (consciously or unconsciously) in ways radically different from those intended by prison reformers. Their creative, frequently subversive deployments of the conversion narrative end up complicating the attempt to define the emancipatory role of prison writing or the teleology of post-prison citizenship.

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