Conversion and the Story of the American Prison

in Critical Survey
Simon Rolston Ithaca College

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This article explores how the rehabilitative discourse of the American prison system shapes the writings of American prisoners. The article begins by tracing how the conversion narrative underpins prison reformers' theories of prison rehabilitation. Then, the article considers how American prisoners like Caryl Chessman, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Malcolm X, George Jackson, and Jack Henry Abbott use the conversion narrative and theories of rehabilitation in their life writings. The article argues that prisoners' life writings do not, as is often presumed, 'write back to power' so much as invoke competing discourses that contest but also reinforce the ideology of the American prison system.

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