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Megan Sweeney (University of Michigan), Life Sentences: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading
May 20 @ 4:30 pm - 5:00 pm
During the late 1960s, male prisoners at San Quentin circulated handwritten pages of The Communist Manifesto by way of a clothesline strung from cell to cell. Today, by contrast, women prisoners frequently circulate devalued genres such as narratives of victimization, African American urban fiction, and Christian self-help books. Although this contrast creates anxiety among some scholars and activists, I have learned—from conducting extensive interviews and group discussions with ninety-four women prisoners—that the contrast indicates far more about the climate for prisoners’ reading in the two time periods than about the readers themselves. Since the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s gave way to the retributive justice framework of the 1980s, prisoners’ opportunities for reading and education have sharply declined. Even in the midst of these severe restrictions, however, many women prisoners strive to maintain vibrant intellectual lives by making creative and varied uses of the limited reading materials available to them. Extending the tradition of prisoners’ self-education, women use popular, female-gendered genres to situate their experiences within broader social and historical contexts, experiment with new ways of being, and maintain a sense of dignity, hope, and human community.