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The Content And Context Of Prison Literature

By Nelda Powers

Prison literature has been defined as writing by authors who are confined against their own will. Confinement comes in different forms including house arrests, ordinary jails or real prisons. Prisoners have used their time behind bars to produce incredible memoirs, fiction, non-fiction, essays, plays and articles to the press. A broader view is work where the author is imprisoned, writing about his experiences or whose writing is inspired by life behind bars.

Notable pioneers of this literary genre included Boethius who wrote Consolation of Philosophy under arrest as early as 524 AD. This is considers an excellent pace setting book. It inspired other people to pickup the subject and produce more books. It is under arrest that Martin Luther is said to have translated the entire New Testament from English to German. The memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, which became hits in the nineteenth century, were dictated to the writer when he was incarcerated.

Life behind bars has the potential of changing the entire human person. An example is Fyodor Dostoevsky who changed style and content because of imprisonment. He was accused of being a member of an illegal intellectual movement. His earlier works were about suffering and humility. After release, the themes of his writing changed to make him a fierce critic of nihilist and socialist views. His works became dark and complex.

Some of the works produced while the authors were confined were scribbled on waste papers. Writers in other parts of the world who have produced remarkable works include Ken Saro Wiwa who wrote Sozaboy before he was executed. The subject was a naive soldier who was imprisoned. William Sydney Porter produced 14 stories under the pseudonym O Henry.

One remarkable prison writing is that of an Iranian author called Mahmoud Dowlatabadi. His book was 500 pages long and entitled Missing Soluch. He did not have any pen or paper with him when he was writing the book. The entire book is said to have been written in the head while he was still behind bars. It took him 70 days to copy it on paper after he secured his release.

Chris Ambani, a Nigerian author documented his experiences in a book called Kalakuta Republic. Ngugi wa Thiongo produced a diary entitled Detained, A Prisoners Diary that was published in 1981. Several notable women writers have produced incredible works that while under arrest. They include Madame Roland from Paris, Krystyna Wituska from Berlin, Nawal El Saadawi in Egypt and Joan Henry from England. Precious Bedell produced her works in New York while Beatrice Saubin wrote from Malysia.

Part of the writing that takes place in prisons is meant to pass time. Intellectuals who are imprisoned want to engage their minds. Organizations have supported prisoners to write by providing them with materials and publishing them. The aim is to offer them room for expression. Writers have used this kind of writing to fuel revolutions and keep alive debates over national issues.

Prison literature captures the thoughts, philosophy and experiences of people behind bars. Imprisonment can cause psychological issues. Writing helps the victims to come to terms with horrific scenes behind bars. The horror of imprisonment is documented in the works of prisoners.

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