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Reading Prisoners

Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700–1845
Jodi Schorb (Author)
256 pages, 7 illustrations, 6 x 9
Cloth, October 2014 $49.95   ADD TO CART
Web PDF, October 2014 $49.95   EBOOK VERSION AVAILABLE
epub, October 2014 $49.95   EBOOK VERSION AVAILABLE
Series: Critical Issues in Crime and Society
Subject Area:
Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law, African American Studies, Literary Studies


Shining new light on early American prison literature—from its origins in last words, dying warnings, and gallows literature to its later works of autobiography, exposé, and imaginative literature—Reading Prisoners weaves together insights about the rise of the early American penitentiary, the history of early American literacy instruction, and the transformation of crime writing in the “long” eighteenth century. 

Looking first at colonial America—an era often said to devalue jailhouse literacy—Jodi Schorb reveals that in fact this era launched the literate prisoner into public prominence. Criminal confessions published between 1700 and 1740, she shows, were crucial “literacy events” that sparked widespread public fascination with the reading habits of the condemned, consistent with the evangelical revivalism that culminated in the first Great Awakening. By century’s end, narratives by condemned criminals helped an audience of new writers navigate the perils and promises of expanded literacy.

Schorb takes us off the scaffold and inside the private world of the first penitentiaries—such as Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison and New York’s Newgate, Auburn, and Sing Sing. She unveils the long and contentious struggle over the value of prisoner education that ultimately led to sporadic efforts to supply prisoners with books and education. Indeed, a new philosophy emerged, one that argued that prisoners were best served by silence and hard labor, not by reading and writing—a stance that a new generation of convict authors vociferously protested.

The staggering rise of mass incarceration in America since the 1970s has brought the issue of prisoner rehabilitation once again to the fore. Reading Prisoners offers vital background to the ongoing, crucial debates over the benefits of prisoner education.


This is a compelling, groundbreaking analysis of literacy among early American prisoners.  Jodi Schorb's careful examination of prisoners' reading and writing practices elucidates their active, collaborative participation in print culture. This is a critical and exciting contribution to the study of prisoners in American literary history.
—Michele Lise Tarter, co-editor Buried Lives: Incarcerated in Early America

"Reading Prisoners is carefully researched, clearly presented, highly original, and immensely readable. Schorb advances current  understandings of the meaning of reading, writing, and the relationship between the two in book history, education, and prisoner literacy studies." 
—Jeannine DeLombard, author of In the Shadow of the Gallows: Race, Crime, and American Civic Identity

"Reading Prisoners is a valuable resource for students and scholars of American literature, American Studies, history, and criminology who want a deeper understanding of the evolution of prisoner writing and education, and the role prisoners played in that genesis."
—American Studies

Author / Editor Bio

JODI SCHORB is an assistant professor of English at the University of Florida. 

Table Of Contents


Introduction    A Is for Aardvark: A Prison Literacy Primer

Part I   Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century “Gaol”

1          Books Behind Bars: Reading Prisoners on the Scaffold

2          Crime, Ink: The Rise of the Writing Prisoner

Part II  Literacy in the Early Penitentiary

3          “What Shall a Convict Do?”: Reading and Reformation in Philadelphia’s Early Penitentiaries

4          Written By One Who Knows: Congregate Literacy in New York Prisons

Afterword       Good Convict, Good Citizen?



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