Prison literature is a literary genre characterized by literature that is written while the author is confined in a location against his will, such as a prison, jail or house arrest.[1] The literature can be about prison, informed by it, or simply coincidentally written while in prison. It could be a memoir, nonfiction, or fiction.


Some notable historical examples of prison literature include Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy (524 AD) which has been described as "by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen."[2] Hugo Grotius wrote his Commentaries while in prison. Marco Polo found time and inspiration to write his travels to China only after his return and being imprisoned in Genoa.[1] Miguel de Cervantes was held captive as a galley slave between 1575 and 1580 and from this he drew inspiration for his novel Don Quixote (1605). Sir Walter Raleigh compiled his History of the World, Volume 1 in a prison chamber in the Tower of London, but he was only able to complete Volume 1 before he was executed. Raimondo Montecuccoli wrote his aphorisms on the art of war in a Stettin prison (c. 1639-1641).[3] John Bunyan wrote The Pilgrim's Progress (1678) while in jail. Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German while held at Wartburg Castle. Marquis de Sade wrote prolifically during an 11-year period in the Bastille, churning out 11 novels, 16 novellas, two volumes of essays, a diary and 20 plays.[1][4]

Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his memoir while imprisoned on St. Helena island; it would become one of the best sellers of the 19th century.[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky spent four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for his membership in a liberal intellectual group from which he produced the autobiographical novel The House of the Dead; it was one of the first books to inform Russians about life inside an exile labor camp.[4] Oscar Wilde wrote the philosophical essay "De Profundis" while in Reading Gaol on charges of "unnatural acts" and "gross indecency" with other men.[4]

E. E. Cummings 1922 autobiographical novel The Enormous Room was written while imprisoned by the French during World War I on the charges of expressing anti-war sentiments in private letters home.[4] Adolf Hitler wrote his autobiographical and political ideology book Mein Kampf while he was imprisoned after the Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. The Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci wrote much of his work while imprisoned by the fascist government of Mussolini during the 1930s; this was later published as Prison Notebooks, and contained his influential theory of cultural hegemony. In 1942 Jean Genet wrote his first novel Our Lady of the Flowers while in prison near Paris, scrawled on scraps of paper.[1][4] O. Henry (William Sidney Porter) wrote 14 stories while in prison for embezzlement, and it was during this time that his pseudonym "O. Henry" began to stick.[4] Nigerian author Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed while in prison, and wrote Sozaboy, about a young naïve imprisoned soldier. Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi wrote the 500-page Missing Soluch while imprisoned without pen or paper, entirely in his head, then copied it down within 70 days after his release.[5] Albert Speer wrote his two memoirs Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries while incarcerated at Spandau prison.[6]

A number of postcolonial texts are based on the author's experiences in prison. Nigerian author Chris Abani’s book of poetry Kalakuta Republic is based on his experiences in prison. Pramoedya Ananta Toer wrote the Buru Quartet while in prison in Indonesia. Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's prison diary titled Detained: A Prisoner's Diary was published in 1981.

Some examples of female prison writers include Madame Roland (Paris, 1793), Krystyna Wituska (Berlin, 1942-44), Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt, 1981), Joan Henry (England, 1951), Caesarina Kona Makhoere (South Africa, 1976-82),[7][8] Vera Figner (Russia, 1883–1904), Béatrice Saubin (Malaysia, 1992-90), Precious Bedell (New York, 1980-99), and Lady Constance Lytton (England, 1910).

American prison literature

Letters and poetry written by Finnish prisoners at the Hämeenlinna prison.

20th-century America brought about many pieces of prison literature. Some examples of such pieces are My Life in Prison by Donald Lowrie, "Cell Mates" by Agnes Smedley, Crime and Criminals by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sing Soft, Sing Loud by Patricia McConnel, and AIDS: The View from a Prison Cell by Dannie Martin. Some other 20th-century prison writers include Jim Tully, Ernest Booth, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Robert Lowell, George Jackson, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Kathy Boudin.

At the start of the 21st century, the United States had an incarceration rate of two million people, taking the lead with the highest imprisonment rate worldwide.

Prison literature written in America is of particular interest to some scholars who point out that pieces which reveal the brutality of life behind bars pose an interesting question about American society: "Can these things really happen in prosperous, freedom-loving America?"[9] Since America is globally reputed as being a “democratic haven” and the “land of freedom,” writings that come out of American prisons can potentially present a challenge to everything the nation was founded on. Jack London, a famous American writer who was incarcerated for 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary, is an example of such a challenger; in his memoir "Pinched": A Prison Experience he recalls how he was automatically sentenced to 30 days in prison with no chance to defend himself or even plead innocent or guilty. While sitting in the courtroom he thought to himself, "Behind me were the many generations of my American ancestry. One of the kinds of liberty those ancestors of mine fought and died for was the right of trial by jury. This was my heritage, stained sacred by their blood…" London’s "sacred heritage" made no difference, however. It is stories such as London’s that make American prison literature a common and popular subtopic of the broader genre of literature.

For readers of American prison memoirs, it means getting a glimpse into a world they would never otherwise experience. As Tom Wicker puts it, "They disclose the nasty, brutish details of the life within – a life the authorities would rather we not know about, a life so far from conventional existence that the accounts of those who experience it exert the fascination of the unknown, sometimes the unbelievable.” He also notes that “what happens inside the walls inevitably reflects the society outside."[10] So not only do readers acquire a sense of the world inside the walls, gaining insight into the thoughts and feelings of prisoners; they also gain a clearer vision of the society which exists outside the prison walls and how it treats and affects those whom they place within. Tom Wicker described prison literature as a "fascinating glimmer of humanity persisting in circumstances that conspire, with overwhelming force, to obliterate it."[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Tony Perrottet. "Serving the Sentence", New York Times Book Review, July 24, 2011.
  2. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia [1]. The quote is commonly seen in a number of sources, but without attribution; the Catholic Encyclopedia entry is the oldest "known" citation.
  3. ^ "My unrelenting vice", Bora Cosic, 5 September 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Emily Temple. "In Black and White: 10 Famed Literary Jailbirds", Flavorwire, January 15, 2012.
  5. ^ Interview with Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. Vimeo.
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ Judith A. Scheffler (ed.), "Caesarina Kona Makhoere (1955–)", in Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women's Prison Writings, 200 to the Present, Feminist Press at CUNY, 2002, p. 97.
  8. ^ "Caesarina Kona Makhoere", South African History Online, August 20, 2011.
  9. ^ H. Bruce Franklin (ed.), Prison Writing in 20th Century America (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1998).
  10. ^ a b Tom Wicker, "Foreword", in D. Quentin Miller (ed.), Prose and Cons: Essays on Prison Literature in the United States (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005), 280.