Blogging Behind Bars

How Prison Blogs Revived Prison Literature in the United States

Bachelor Thesis, 2010

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Prison Literature
2.1. 1960s - 1980s
2.2. Social Interaction
2.3. Themes and Patterns
2.3.1. Reminiscence, Trauma and Identity
2.3.2. Reading, Writing and Identity

3. Prison Blogs
3.1. Techno-social character
3.1.1. Expectations
3.1.2. Q&A
3.2. Process and Immediacy
3.2.1. The Act of Writing
3.2.2. The Perception of Time

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Literature, like any other cultural, social or artistic phenomenon, is constantly prone to change. Content and format are evolving and transforming themselves as the audience and, ultimately, society does. This includes the change of moral and religious standards, scientific and economic developments, new esthetic values and different taste in art and certainly new trends in the field of communication and social technology. The level and also spheres of influence are, of course, varying and both, literary texts and audience are mutually dependent. But it is, to some degree, a quite one-sided relationship due to the fact that the author is only engaging in a one-sided dialogue. Taken to extremes, one could argue that the author is, in a way, controlling the meaning of his literary oeuvre as well as the perception of the audience. It is a one-way channel leading from producer, the author, to recipient, the audience, both in terms of the functioning of the medium (the book) and the perception itself.

Assuming that this channel would no longer function in the traditional, the tried and tested way, and further assuming that it could be possible to involve the readership in the process of creating meaning and influencing the perception, the question arises whether or not there is a medium capable of coping with these demands. This medium would need to be a middle course involving the possibility to allow author and audience to communicate directly and exchange ideas. But could a single innovation accomplish all this? Furthermore, could it also tie in with the former relevance of prison literature and make a connection with a Web 2.0 audience that was, if anything, still attending kindergarten when prison literature in the United States was arousing public interest. In 1999, prison literature was pronounced to have been dead since the beginning of the 1980s by author Bell Gale Chevigny (xx) making these questions even more relevant and urgent.

With all the possibilities the so-called Web 2.0 has to offer, these potential scenarios have already become reality. Blogs, deriving from the term web-logs, are forming the already enormous blogosphere wherein all the blogs are combined. They have become one of the most important sources of information for internet users worldwide, which add up to a total number of 1,802,330,457 at the end of 2009 (Miniwatts Marketing Group, Internet Usage Statistics 2009). Obviously, blogs are not books. However they can and need to be analyzed and compared equally for the simple fact that both mediums contain literature. Therefore, equivalent treatment is necessary. Aside from the fact that blogs are not as tangible as books and might arguably have a shorter half-life period due to their constant changing they do have an essential advantage over the traditional literary medium.

They do expand the above-mentioned one-way channel and not only that. Blogs are capable of transforming this channel of information into a communicative two-way channel. The reader can respond or simply comment to what the author has written and, at the same time, the author can comment on that as well. A certain kind of dialogue becomes possible. Meaning and perception are no longer fixed but variable due to communication which is something the medium book cannot provide simply because of its limited format.

This conclusion does, of course, not apply to every kind of text. Most blogs are non-fictional, in this case meaning that they are either dealing with factual issues from the fields of politics, economy or technology, or autobiographical, meaning that they center mostly on personal issues. Even though there is a small subgenre in the blogosphere that focuses on fictional writing, it is considered to be an exception with little to no relevance. “Although blogging in general has captured the public imagination, fictional blogging remains a marginal genre” (Friedrichs Fictional Blogs).

By focusing on non-fictional blogs, it becomes evident that there is a wide range of topics as above-mentioned and also functionalities. In theory, there is an infinite range of possible subject areas since blogs themselves are only a tool, a digital void that can be filled with “everything from politics, to commerce, to arts and culture” (Barlow 35). The one thing that does differentiate blog entries and ordinary articles is the communicative aspect, the exchange of ideas. It is a medium of expression. Blogs are “typically produced by an individual presenting his or her thoughts to the world for any to read” (Forbes, Mahan 131) and bloggers do blog “to persuade, and to leave a record of having been there” (Hewitt 105). Carrying this thought a bit further, and connecting it to the social aspect, one can infer from this that everyone, regardless of social status and personal motivation, has the possibility and the right to blog. And this does certainly apply to prison inmates since their social status is eventually lower than anyone else´s.

At this point, the communicative aspect becomes particularly relevant in terms of exchange of ideas and creative output itself, be it via a book or a blog, because the United States still is the country with the largest prison population in the world (Bosworth 2009). That is one of the reasons why it is worth looking at this particular part of society despite the preconceptions and moral ambiguity that might exist when doing research on this topic (Visher, Travis 2010). Following up on the right to blog that has been mentioned earlier one has to acknowledge the fact that this right is rather a privilege than a right guaranteed by law. In fact, most prisoners in the U.S. are still “routinely denied access to broadcast media” (Hill, DeTar Between the Bars), meaning that they are, in most cases, denied internet access as well. Apparently this fact does not prevent inmates from blogging. This thesis will elaborate on this unique fact and the possibilities that come along with it in a more detailed fashion in chapter Throughout this thesis, the underlying possibility of the revival of prison literature in the United States through prison blogs will be explored and analyzed. It will be proceeded by first exploring the genre referred to as prison literature during its zenith, namely the time period between the 1960s and 1980s. The objects of investigation will thereby consist of a selected assortment of works of this genre as well as on this genre. The main focus will be directed towards extracting characteristic themes and patterns of this type of texts that will later on serve as a basis for further, literary analyses. Summarizing the different approaches on the texts, one would classify it as a close reading concentrated on recurring themes and the way each of them forms a pattern.

This part is then followed by the third chapter, in which a selected number of weblog entries that are presented on Jon`s Jail Journals will be analyzed. Taking up the approach of the second chapter, formal features and patterns from the selected weblog entries will be extracted and, if possible, related to previous findings The thesis then goes into detail with the blogs` techno-social character as well as the unique occurrence of a shifted immediacy and the perception of time (Raffl, Hofkirchner, Fuchs, Schafranek The Web as Techno-Social System: The Emergence of Web 3.0). This will be done in order to show that the revival is not only based on similarities in themes and approaches only but also on a groundbreaking technological innovation. This thesis ends with a conclusion including a recap as well as taking a look at possible future developments trying to convey a prognosis based on the research results.

In summary, prison blogs, such as Jon`s Jail Journal, have revived the genre of prison literature by means of their “techno-social character” (Raffl, Hofkirchner, Fuchs, Schafranek The Web as Techno-Social System: The Emergence of Web 3.0), their reference to immediacy and their thematic approach.

2. Prison Literature

Prison memoirs and diaries have been part of a long and ongoing American tradition. It does, amongst other things, include autobiographical and self-referential literature, be it in the religious context, in the form of “… mountains of sermons, religious diaries, and church histories left by New England Puritans”, or in the captivity context since the early 20th century and before (Lambert 47). Therefore, prison literature has always been an important part of American literature and its academic analysis as well, all together forming an own subcategory which is considered to be a literary phenomenon and is being scholarly researched (Erickson 1998). In order to find and emphasize distinctive features and patterns of prison literature, this genre will be explored on the basis of previous, selected works. Since the period between the politically explosive 1960s and the economically turbulent 1980s are considered to be the genre´s preliminary climax, the focus will lie on works that were either published during this period or that at least cover it.

The function of this topic will consist of finding, explicating and analyzing certain distinctive characteristics that, in a way, define and distinguish it from other kinds of text and substantiate the possibility of the existence of a general, perseverative, medium-overarching language of themes and features. This process is neither meant to be a survey nor does it make any claim to be complete. It is rather meant to serve as an overview of this type of texts and as a proposal for a possible reading.

2.1. 1960s - 1980s

Beginning in the postwar period, which will not get covered due to a lack of space and immanent relevance to the context of the thesis, and especially in the political important 1960s, prison literature has had its time of prosperity in the United States. Referring to the 1960s again, the emergence of the Black Power movement and especially Malcolm X and his autobiography which was “… published nearly 40 years ago, can be said to have marked the beginning of a new epoch in American prison literature …” (Miller 203). This cultural trend continued well into the beginning of the 1980s when it suddenly lost its relevance which, according to Chevigny, in part had to do with the 1981 release of the book “In the Belly of the Beast” by infamous inmate Jack Abbott (xiv). In his book, Abbott describes the prison system which, with the help of novelist Norman Mailer, gained a great deal of attention. The book`s success and Mailer`s involvement then eventually lead to him getting parole which in turn allowed Abott to kill “… a waiter in a Manhattan eatery“ (Ulin Ego with an insecure streak).

This series of acts is not only an interesting example of a mutual and lively writer-reader interaction (gone wrong, one might suggest) but also considered to be “… perhaps his greatest misstep …” or, in his own words, “… another episode in my life in which I can find nothing to cheer about or nothing to take pride in” (Ulin Ego with an insecure streak). It is a quite unrivaled and extreme example of how supposedly starry-eyed idealism and naiveté, unintentional or not, have changed the genre´s prestige and popularity for the worse. But the reception of prison writing and its popularity amongst readers has also been subject to many other factors. According to Chevigny, is also directly linked to the way prisoners in general are being looked at by society. Their social prestige and society´s overall interest in this topic are essential factors, which led to “… enthusiasm and broad-based support in the seventies, doubt growing in the eighties, cynicism dominating the nineties, and beginning to give way at century`s end” (xix).

As it has been stated before, prison writing also had a rather political side to it.

A prime-example for this phase is considered to be Malcolm X´s Autobiography which was published in 1965. The release did not only fit perfectly into its time, the politically and socially heated 1960s, but also marked the beginning of a new era, an era in which “… prisoners, especially African-American male prisoners, played a strong role”. The politicization of imprisonment “… in these explosive times… ” added a whole new level of, on the one hand, attention, and, on the other hand, acceptance to the genre´s status and perception (Chevigny xiv). As literary activities inside of prison walls grew larger and almost turned into a social movement, the outside world (in parts) started to adapt to it.

The creative part of society started to absorb these written ideas and get inspired by them and, in turn, transformed them into, for example, theater plays. Rothenberg`s “Fortune and Men`s Eyes” could be stated as one of the more prominent examples of that era. This development also lead to an increase of ex- convicts among theater goers at that time and, according to Chevigny, at the same time lead to an increase of “… the play´s authenticity… ” and brought many of them to make “… public their past for the first time” (xiv). These dynamics of action and reaction in a literary context, or rather, triggered by literary works, can be interpreted as precursors to the newly formed digital two-way channels of communication that have been described in the introduction.

2.2. Social Interaction

This social movement displayed yet another example of interactive communication and influence through literature. By writing about their situation inmates were able to tell their story and inform everybody else not sharing this kind of experience about their situation. In short, they reacted. Readers, in turn, reacted to the information given in these books, and certainly not only to that but also to the way they were written, and, on their parts, triggered certain reactions on the side of the inmates. It is a cycle of two-way communication and influence in which literature plays the role of a transmitting medium that contains certain literary characteristics and themes that define it. In chapter 3.1., they will be analyzed in more detail. Or, as Evans puts it, “writing changes both reader and writer and helps one to reflect and understand what happened” (ix).

The aforementioned precursor model of the two-way channel mentioned in the introduction was far more limited than it is now (even though it is still limited) due to the technological possibilities of its time. However, it still can be considered as this one precursor model for today´s blog-driven interaction and exchange due to the fact that there is one feature that both of these channels, book and blog, do have in common despite the historical and technological frame. It is the fact that “… writing these narratives became a creative way for these prisoners to reenter society” (Evans ix).

This fact is not only another distinguishing feature that separates the prison literature of the 1960s, 70s and 80s from earlier literature of the same or, at least, similar genres (e.g. captivity literature). In fact, it is also a distinctive feature that has not lost any relevance to this day. “Because society wouldn´t let them in, they invited society into their own world” and these inmate writers have done so in order to “…have others acknowledge your existence and witness your life as a human being” (Evans ix). There can be no doubt that the act of inviting someone is a highly social act regardless of the context and the concomitant circumstances.

2.3. Themes and Patterns

In this chapter, different themes that occur in the inmates` texts will be emphasized and analyzed as well as the way they are connected to each other forming a pattern. One of the most frequently occurring themes in works of U.S. prison writing (at least in the period of time this thesis is focusing on) will also be the first one to be subject to a close reading analysis in chapter 2.3.1. It is reminiscence in the widest sense and here it refers to the act of remembering and reflecting on a certain time period before the prison sentence.

Reminiscence is not only a recurrent theme in each text but it also follows certain patterns that, despite the different literary styles displayed in these texts, bear a surprising resemblance among each other.


Excerpt out of 33 pages


Blogging Behind Bars
How Prison Blogs Revived Prison Literature in the United States
University of Leipzig  (Institut für Amerikanistik)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
677 KB
Blogging, Blogs, American Studies, Prison Literature, Prison, Social Media, Gefängnisliteratur, Prison Blogs
Quote paper
Sebastian Matkey (Author), 2010, Blogging Behind Bars, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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