Professor Larson lectures on American prison complex

By John Rufo '16

What cities come to mind when you imagine the United States? New York? Miami? Chicago? Easy to identify by sight, these cities bear a visual stamp and represent a culture that most Americans can recognize.

Last Thursday, Feb. 20, a lecture given by Professor of English and Creative Writing Doran Larson answered these and other questions in order to reveal America’s fourth largest “city”: our prison complex. This lecture, titled “Bearing Digital Witness: The Humanities, Social Justice, and the American Prison Complex,” was a part of the Highlighting the Humanities series

Collaborating with the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHI), Professor Larson outlined the current prison problem the United States perpetuates, explaining that our perception of prisons bears little resemblance to the reality of the situation. America’s prison complex currently incarcerates 2.26 million individuals. As Larson’s new collection of prison writing Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America makes apparent, American prisons have an intricate and identifiable stamp, much like those generated with major cities. The majority of American prison literature reveals “the deep shock the writer feels on entering the system,” Larson indicated. “Even someone who has been in prison for less than a week will begin talking about ‘the system.’”

Prison writing bears witness to the current state of America’s prison complex. In addition to Larson’s collection, which brings together a variety of writers and stories from across the United States, all speaking on their experiences inside the prison system, the Digital Humanities Initiative has recently created the American Prison Writing Archive. The Archive seeks to establish a diverse range of prison writings for the benefit of students, scholars, and those desiring to draw attention to the prison system. In addition, an important goal of the archive will be to break down censorship regarding this type of information and share the voices of not only prisoners, but prison staff and administrators as well.

Larson’s lecture outlined the difficulty in compiling this work, describing the number of essays he received from prisoners and the host of essays which may still “be waiting for me currently at the Mail Center.” With the help of several Hamilton students, including Olivia Wolfgang-Smith ’11 and Matthew Hennigar ’14, Larson combed through submissions and ultimately compiled 71 essays for Fourth City. Though the collection should prove to be a groundbreaking work in prison witness literature, Larson noted the immensity of prison writing currently still unrepresented. The Digital Archive attempts to rectify this underrepresentation; however, as Larson stated, the range of prison literature “may be the largest witness literature we have access to—more than the body of Holocaust literature and slave narratives.”

Though he concluded that “we are all, as Americans, implicit in this system,” Larson emphasized that this project was not intended to spread guilt or point fingers, but to provide recognition of a distinctly American and contemporary issue. As Larson’s viral essay “Why Scandinavian Prisons Are Superior” explained, workable and better prison alternatives exist. But unless we uncover our prison system and draw attention to its witness literature, it will remain the fourth city, one which no American could proudly call home.


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