Coogan on Rolston, 'Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System'

Simon Rolston
David Coogan

Simon Rolston. Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2021. 301 pp. $34.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-77112-517-8.

Reviewed by David Coogan (Virginia Commonwealth University) Published on H-Biography (January, 2022) Commissioned by Daniel R. Meister (Independent Scholar)

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Coogan on Rolston, 'Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System'

Whether it is written in prison or after prison, independently or with the intervention of ghost writers and editors, prison life writing is often written with one eye on the page and the other looking over the shoulder—someone or something watching, judging, censoring, or in other ways prefiguring the story. Although the genre is popular among readers and well-known authors in it have caught the attention of critics, prison life writing has not received sustained critical attention as a genre or a field within prison studies. Simon Rolston, a professor in the Department of English at Langara College, aims to correct that with a focus on the role of conversion in the genre and in prisons more generally.

Rolston argues that “life writing as a genre” has been “largely overlooked in the scholarship on US prisons” because it is often misidentified as “resistance literature” (pp. 2-3). Scholars in prison studies, a multidisciplinary group spanning the humanities and social sciences, tend to ignore the narrative of conversion in prison life writing. They value writers from the 1960s who resist the authority of prison, whose work lends itself well to prison abolition. Rolston seeks a larger and more inclusive domain for prison life writing, spanning the history of mass incarceration from the 1960s until the present day. He does not argue for abolition but he is weary of the conversion narrative.

Rolston traces the cultural origins of conversion in America to the Puritans and the Quakers. Penitentiaries emerge here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to encourage penitence and ultimately conversion from sinful to saved, criminal to citizen. As it entrenches itself in the institutional life of prisons into the twentieth century, conversion expands to become a “complete change from one way of being to another, which is usually described as a division of selfhood: an old (sinful or unenlightened) self is separated from a new (repentant or enlightened) self” (p. 8). Generalizing conversion as a prison discourse enables Rolston to establish its presence in the genre.

Rolston takes a Foucauldian approach here. The goal is to prove that there is a “linkage between two presumably oppositional discourses: the discourse of prison and prison life writing” (p. 15). Sometimes he makes a more forceful argument that prison “looks to produce discursive conversions in order to legitimize its own existence” (p. 75). At other times, he pulls back from that to say, “this in no way means that prison life writing is wholly defined by these institutional pressures.” He does not theorize why or under what circumstances prison compels conversion and when it fails to compel it. Rather, he argues, “life writing reveals the ideological but also the aesthetic complexity of the genre” (p. 75). The move here toward “aesthetic complexity” gives Rolston considerable leeway in both his choice of authors to discuss and his criticism of their work. It also makes his criticism unpredictable and, at times, questionable. The drive to illustrate the template of conversion seems to overwhelm a more nuanced interpretation of the literature.

For example, while discussing Malcolm X’s famous conversion in prison from street hustler to liberated and educated man, Rolston argues that “prison’s rehabilitation programming plays a defining role” (p. 11). What was that programming? True, X was imprisoned at Norfolk Prison Colony and did have access to a well-stocked library. But he has very little positive to say about “prison’s rehabilitation programming.” Rolston does not discuss the scene, but the one that sticks with me is when X challenges a white divinity student from Harvard who is teaching a class. The divinity student claims Jesus was white. X wins the argument that Jesus was brown and wins praise from other Black prisoners. Is this conversion according to the terms of prison or resistance to conversion? Rolston does discuss the iconic scene where X is copying the dictionary in his cell. That was not a directive from a rehabilitation program. That was X’s idea. He wanted to be able to write more articulate letters to Elijah Muhammad in the Nation of Islam and to be more like Bimbi, another Black man in prison who commands attention with his speech on racial and political issues. Rolston does establish that X has a conversion experience in prison, but he seems to deemphasize X’s drive for racial liberation. The circumstances surrounding X’s experience at this particular prison are also underreported. As X points out in the autobiography, the Norfolk Prison Colony was an experimental rehabilitation prison in the 1950s with a very small number of slots open for Black prisoners. It was not a place created with “rehabilitation programming” for Black people.

Although it is clear that conversion is a force to be reckoned with in in prison, Prison Life Writing suffers from a preoccupation with tracking this force in the genre and, in this way, privileging the literary over the ideological. When discussing “the treatment era” of rehabilitation in the 1970s, Rolston highlights George Jackson and James Carr, who for different reasons resist the official narrative of rehabilitation that would correct them, in effect returning them to the same racist society that led to their incarceration in the first place. Jackson resists through his own, self-directed political consciousness raising and organizing directed toward racial liberation; Carr, through a hypermasculine, unrepentant, violence and criminality. Jackson is articulate in his Marxist analysis of racism in prisons and in society. Carr is repugnant, boasting of raping men in prison and women in society.

Why are Jackson and Carr in the same chapter? The answer has to do with the ways they handle the narrative of conversion. Rolston is interested in the way that Jackson’s political consciousness grew from his resistance to the rehabilitative gaze of prison. He knows his letters are being censored and addresses this directly, at one point writing directly to his censor. As he goes on reading Marx and Mao and theorizing revolution, he engages the narrative of conversion to give himself cover. Jackson organizes men for revolution. Carr preys on them. Rolston concedes that Carr often embodies racist stereotypes of the Black predator, but seeks to present this as “signifying” or “lying” (p. 113), techniques in African American literature through which the narrator pushes back against white, status quo politics. This is plausible but inadvisable, a coherent but also questionable effort to resuscitate Carr. That Rolston features Carr alongside Jackson as two writers capable of “literary innovations” privileges literary innovation within the genre of conversion over ethical judgment about the purpose of prison life writing.

Rolston proceeds next to the retrenchment of rehabilitation in the later 1970s and 1980s, featuring Jack Henry Abbott and, problematically, Carl Panzram, a serial killer whose story took place in the early twentieth century but whose confession was not released as a book until decades later, in the 1970s. This blurring of the pre-WWII era with the post-Vietnam War era makes it hard to see this chapter historically. Rolston seems ambivalent about the role of history in the structure of the book. The chapters appear to be arranged chronologically, moving from the treatment era (1950–70) to the post-treatment era. But then, surprisingly, in the second to last chapter, when we are well into the 1990s, Rolston returns to the 1970s to discuss Assata Shakur and Susan Rothenberg. They are singled out so that he can discuss women’s prison life writing, which he argues does not follow the template of conversion because women were not expected to return to society as citizens in the same way as men. This argument is contradicted when, in the next chapter, he discusses Susan Burton’s memoir, which is more recent. Rolston’s claim about conversion in prison life writing by women is further contradicted by more recent titles such as the memoirs by the women of York Correctional Institution, edited and published as an anthology by Wally Lamb. Separating Shakur and Rothenberg into a chapter because they are women separates them from their radical politics of liberation, which have more in common with Jackson and even Abbott and the historical era of the 1970s.

Prison Life Writing is best read thematically, not historically. The chapter with Panzram and Abbott is a good illustration of that. This chapter, called “From the Treatment Era to the Monster Factory,” actually begins long before the treatment era of rehabilitation. Thematically, it raises the question, have prisons always been in the business of creating monsters, despite what they claim about conversion? Abbott’s writings about inhumane prison conditions, published with support from Norman Mailer, suggest that the answer is yes. Abbott argues that prison made him unfit for society, which turned out to be true: when he was released from prison, he killed a man. That he could do this after having written so insightfully about his conditions leads Rolston to conclude that “Abbott challenges the redemptive, transcendent rhetoric associated with prison education by resisting the basic premise of prison education programs—that education has an inevitably positive, socializing effect” (p. 153). Similar to the way he wrote about Malcolm X, the phrasing here about “prison education programs” implies that Abbott went through such a program but it failed to redeem him. What goes unstated in this chapter is Abbott’s defiant pride in never having attended a prison school. It is unclear to me why Rolston blurs the line here between self-education and compulsory prison education except that this fits the Foucauldian perspective in which prison discourses are everywhere but nowhere, always already framing the sayable and unsayable. Would Abbott have avoided becoming a monster if he had gone to school? Or is there no way to redeem through education in prison—within a school or without?

By now, it has become clear that Rolston’s goal is to establish conversion not only as an ever-present force in prisons but as a questionable one. This leads to some uncharitable readings of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s A Place to Stand (2001) and Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs (2013) in chapter 4. Baca’s conversion from angry, traumatized, illiterate, poor, and oppressed Chicano man into a culturally empowered, literary man reclaiming his Chicano roots and healing from trauma is “acutely problematic” because his “acquisition of the Enlightenment ideals of humanity and civility is facilitated by the imagined degeneration of his fellow imprisoned people” (p. 183). One of the key scenes that figures into this judgment is when Baca refuses to go to work because he wants to go to school. He had been promised school by the prison counselor but was then denied. When the guards finally come to force him from his cell, fellow prisoners hurl invective and feces at him and Baca describes them as animals in their cages. Missing from Rolston’s analysis is the back story of Baca’s defiance here—his determination not to be betrayed again, as the counselor who promised him education betrayed him. Betrayal runs deep in Baca’s life story, having been committed by his parents, girlfriends and so-called friends on the streets. Baca explains the connection between this history and his actions at the end of the scene. But Rolston seems unwilling to let Baca narrate his conversion holistically as a reframing of his life story in ways that let him begin to recover from trauma and become a witness for people trapped in the same despair.

Rolston has a similarly disparaging interpretation of Shaka Senghor’s memoir. Senghor was abandoned by his mother, exploited by crack dealers as a teen, and shot in a drug deal gone wrong before he went on to shoot and kill someone else in a different drug deal. He worked through his trauma by writing and navigated the difficult terrain of prison gangs and Black empowerment groups that did not always have his best interests in mind, finally atoning for his past by connecting with his family and apologizing to the godmother of the man he killed, who forgives him. But to Rolston, Senghor “monetizes precisely what makes life so difficult for most people who have been convicted of a felony: the inability of formerly incarcerated people to be free of their ex-convict status” (pp. 196–197). He “monetizes” his story in the memoir and in his public speaking and consulting work after prison to help people who were once like him: hurt, desperate, and vulnerable to drugs and violence. Helping people is a problem? Selling a book and selling services is questionable?

Rolston seems to want too much from prison life writing while, strangely, expecting very little from it. He wants us to see it as a durable genre, a container that writers keep filling in ways that may change them. But he also wants us to see such efforts as symbolic at best. Prison life writing cannot change prison. Are we reading voyeuristically to let ourselves off the hook from collective action? Should we stop reading? Should they stop writing?

In the concluding chapter, Rolston offers a more hopeful reason to read prison life writing. It emerges when he reviews Susan Burton’s memoir, Becoming Ms. Burton (2017). He is pleased to report that Burton does not just redeem herself from the trauma of sexual abuse, the trauma of losing her son to police violence, and the despair of her addiction to crack cocaine and the multiple prison terms she endured. She goes on to help other women of color facing similar circumstances do the same. In so doing, Burton pivots from an individualized story of conversion to a story of multiple conversions. This leads Rolston to a hasty reappraisal of the relational self-making in the memoirs by Baca, Senghor, and the others, who he now sees were always reforming themselves alongside others who could support, inspire, and direct the path. For a brief moment, the other writers are not just following a template of conversion but are rebuilding their lives in community with others. This provides an alternate motivation to read prison life writing—to see ourselves as a part of those relationships with the imprisoned, as readers, interlocutors, volunteers, advocates: a community that makes our collective conversion possible and desirable. It is too bad this insight only came at end. It would have been a compelling place to begin.

Citation: David Coogan. Review of Rolston, Simon, Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System. H-Biography, H-Net Reviews. January, 2022. URL:

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