From the INside Out: Women Writers Behind Prison Walls

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2004-11-01

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ABSTRACT

Title of dissertation: FROM THE INSIDE OUT:

WOMEN WRITERS BEHIND PRISON WALLS

Donna L. Rowe, Doctor of Philosophy, 2004

Dissertation directed by: Professor John C. Caughey

Department of American Studies

This dissertation considers what women in prison, or women who have been in prison, have to tell us, in oral testimony or in their writing, about the American "prison experience." This study shows how the interpretation of first person prison narratives provides important insights into patterns in the lives of women in their pre-prison, in prison, and post-prison experiences. It also explores the importance that creating narratives has for women prisoners' lives.

This dissertation examines three kinds of prison narratives. The first involves texts produced and written by female prisoners and prison activists in a radical feminist underground prison newsletter published in Seattle, WA between 1976 and 1987. Secondly, oral narratives by two former prisoners involved in the production of that newsletter are presented. Finally, I discuss and interpret the prison poetry, memoir, and other narratives produced in a creative writing workshop series at the District of Columbia Detention Center between 1995 and 1996. Women writers in prison provide insights into situations, such as poverty and abuse, that brought them to prison, they discuss survival strategies in prison, and they offer recommendations for prison policy reform as it relates to their pre-prison, prison, and post-prison experiences.

The central questions to which I seek answers are how can we learn from exploring the autobiographical representations of women writers in prison, and what can we learn from the prison experience that assists us in understanding the needs of women in prison today? In addition to examining the characteristics and dynamics of the prison experience out of which the women are writing, this work both interprets what women prisoners have to say and seeks to assess the various meanings narration has for them.

The dissertation borrows theories and techniques from feminist theory, social justice theory, critical race theory, and oral history while offering an analysis of the current conditions of women's incarceration in the United States. It employs the methods of ethnography, including participant observation, key informant interviews, oral history, and reflexivity to enter and describe the communities examined in this research. Life stories from prison writers and activists offer a continuity of themes and theories of development as prisoners attempt to re-enter the free world.

In particular, this work seeks to increase our understanding of women's prison experiences as a means to a deeper understanding of how female prisoners make meaning out of the prison experience through writing and as a springboard for considering prison policy change.

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