A Brief History of Prison Writing

by Tyler Woodsmall

I believe that there is a unique connection between incarceration and literature; classics from around the world have been written from prisons. Just a few of the numerous notable works are Fanny Hill (1748) by John Cleland, The Consolation of Philosophy (523) by Boethius, Civil Disobedience (1849) by Henry David Thoreau, The Enormous Room (1922) by E. E. Cummings, The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) by Marquis de Sade, and De Profundis (1897) by Oscar Wilde.

Out of the depths of prison, a plethora of literature both profound and controversial has emerged. Perhaps boredom causes prisoners to write, or maybe some inmates use literature as a tool to escape the walls that confine them. Whatever the reason, the literature that has emerged from prisons has had enormous literary impact—from raising pro-Christian philosophical questions to the creation of erotica and books that vividly recount disturbing depravity.

The history of prison writing seems to have begun with Boethius, a classical Neoplatonist philosopher who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in 523 AD, during his imprisonment for treason. The Consolation of Philosophy is a written account of a conversation Boethius had with Lady Philosophy while he was in prison. It serves as a personification of his philosophical ideas, such as the denial of the flesh, intellectualism being the highest good earth can offer, evil’s lack of substance, and providence as the reason God created the universe. This thought-provoking material was written between bouts of torture.

But the cruelties of prison life were not a part of every inmate’s journey. English author John Cleland wrote the first piece of erotica from a debtors’ prison. A year after Fanny Hill was published, Cleland and the publishers were arrested for the book’s “pornographic” content. But Fanny Hill has since solidified its place in classic literature. It no longer lives in obscurity; you can purchase a copy in any major bookstore. Surely this book would be just as important if Cleland had written it in his own home or anywhere else. But the fact that Fanny Hill was written from prison validates the theory that prison writing has produced historically notable literature.

American poet E. E. Cummings was imprisoned in 1917 in France on suspicion of espionage for his anti-war sentiments. While there he wrote an autobiographical novel called The Enormous Room. Cummings' novel is important because it can properly exemplify the importance of unpopular speech. Ultimately prison writing can ask questions we could never think of speaking. What do they have to lose? They’re already in prison, so the only thing that would be “free” inside of a jail cell is thought.  

The Marquis de Sade, a French author, wrote prolifically during the thirty years he spent in prison and an insane asylum. His work reflects his own life of sickening depravity, perversity, and blasphemy. His name is the origin of the word sadismDid prison make Sade a writer? Probably not, but it did seem to have a profound effect on his writing. Richard Seaver, a translator of Sade’s work, said, “There is no question that de Sade would have never been a writer of any stature if he wasn’t sent to prison.” (This quote can be found in the documentary “Pornographer or Prophet?”) Sade’s themes of torture, loneliness, violence, and sexuality reflect the author’s madness, a condition that prison drove him to.

The idea of incarcerated people having a voice outside of prison is frightening or upsetting to many people. However, historical literature and other creative materials often come from vexatious places. “Words have no power to impress the mind without the exquisite horror of their reality,” wrote Edgar Allan Poe. I personally agree with Poe’s statement; I believe that the “horror of their reality” contributes to why profound writing can come from prisoners.

I just completed my first semester at Goddard, and therefore this has been my first semester working with Duende. I have only had the pleasure of seeing a few prison writing submissions, and I give a great deal of credit to my fellow Duendians Jorn Otte, Amy Sterne, and Wendy Call for championing Duende's prison writing project. The history of prison writing leads me to believe that more notable literature will come from behind bars. I’m not saying that Duende will publish the next famous incarcerated writer, but it’s great to be a part of something that feels so important.


The Words Behind the Bars

By Jørn Otte

Last October, I had the unique and wonderful opportunity to hear Mumia Abu-Jamal deliver a prerecorded commencement speech to the fall 2014 graduates of my school, Goddard College. Abu-Jamal is a former journalist and activist, as well as a distinguished writer and Goddard College alum. He is also a member of America’s enormous incarcerated community, serving a life sentence in a prison in Pennsylvania. Feel free to learn more about him by reading his incredible book, Live From Death Row.

The United States of America has a population that accounts for 5% of the total number of people on planet Earth, however, the "Land of the Free" houses 25% of the world’s prison population. This means, that one out of every four incarcerated people, in the world, is housed in a United States jail cell.

While I will not mythologize the role of convict, nor defend any atrocities committed by anyone, it is a certainty that innocent people are incarcerated at an alarming rate in America. Though it can be argued that the vast majority of people who end up in prison do so because they were guilty of committing a crime, that does not mean that the law they broke was a just law, nor does it mean the sentence they received was a fair punishment to fit the crime. The reality is, persons of color are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate in this country. Statistically speaking, if you are a young black male, you have a greater chance of being put in jail than a white person, even if you both commit the same crime.

Real and documented social inequalities are one reason why those in prison deserve a platform to be heard. These people are fathers, mothers, children, friends and loved ones. No matter what put them in the cell they now occupy, they are still human beings. They have lives worth learning about and stories worth hearing.

There are many organizations that exist to help give voice to the millions of people behind bars in America. Perhaps the best known is the PEN Prison Writing Program. “Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.”

Another wonderful organization that uses the power of words to work with at-risk youth is called Pongo. “The Pongo Publishing Teen Writing Project is a volunteer, nonprofit effort with Seattle teens who are in jail, on the streets, or in other ways leading difficult lives. We help these young people express themselves through poetry and other forms of writing.”

There are many other programs across the country and around the world that are striving to allow the written word to be a vehicle through which people behind bars can express themselves, share their stories and heal. We at Duende wish to add our voice to helping the voiceless. We want to share the words behind the bars.

Our online literary journal is committed to giving voice to those stories by presenting a platform where previously or currently incarcerated writers, poets and artists can share their work with the general public. Duende is dedicated to showcasing quality writing from communities underrepresented in the U.S. literary landscape. The journal seeks to be a vehicle through which writers who are or have been incarcerated can share their writing and visual art with a wider audience. Duende seeks poetry, prose, hybrid work, and visual art coming from the minds and hearts of prisoners—current or former, in the U.S. or in other countries.

You are not forgotten and you deserve to be heard. We gladly accept your submissions via postal mail until March 25, 2015. Please send to:

BFA in Writing Program
Goddard College
123 Pitkin Road
Plainfield, VT  05667

This is our first effort at this endeavor, however it most certainly won’t be our last. Mumia Abu-Jamal was once quoted as saying, “Very few people in prison have voices that go beyond the wall. It's my job to do the work for them because they have no one.” That is Duende’s mission as well. Please feel free to share this call with your local prison writing organization. Thank you.