Writing course provides prisoners’ perspectives

By Dale Johnson Posted: December 28, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Jason Demers says, “I’ve heard from students whose ideas about criminal justice have been transformed.”
Jason Demers says, “I’ve heard from students whose ideas about criminal justice have been transformed.” Photo: U of R Photography

A class in prison writing is being offered at the University of Regina in the Winter 2018 semester. English 110-003, Prison Writing, will be taught by Dr. Jason Demers. The class is a way for students to understand what prisoners are thinking, through their writing. Dr. Demers, who has taught this class twice before, says the course has opened the eyes of many students.

What is the value of offering a course in prison writing?

A course on prison writing allows students to learn about histories and methods of incarceration from an inmate perspective, while at the same time conveying the importance of narrative.

Does this course look at writings from Canadian prisoners, or from prisoners in other countries?

The course looks at writing produced in Canada and the United States. It goes as far back as reading the narrative of an enslaved person in the antebellum South, and it gets very contemporary and local when we examine recent letters produced by people incarcerated in Saskatchewan’s provincial prisons.

What topics do you cover?  

The assigned readings for the course are all inmate produced; I bring in secondary sources to provide context. We look at poetry, essays, memoirs and letters, but I’m also interested in looking in less conventional places for this writing. We also consider the mediation that’s necessarily involved in publishing prison writing: while it may look like incarcerated people have an easy time being heard when we read blogs devoted to publishing the work of people in solitary confinement, or when we listen to podcasts produced by an inmate on death row, this writing is only made possible due to the persistent work of vast networks of people outside of prison.

From your experience and knowledge, what does prison writing say about penitentiaries and prisoners?

Prison writing says a lot of things about specific forms of incarceration, and it helps to map out, very tangibly and effectively, gendered and racialized experiences of, and pathways to, prison. Prison writing can devastate with its descriptions of lived brutalities, it can bring into sharp relief some of the contradictions and ironies at the centre of our justice system, and it can come in subtle forms, as we witness the songs of the plantation metamorphose into the songs of the penitentiary.

What faculties are your students from, and what are the benefits of taking this course?  

First and foremost, this is an English course, but my students come from across the Faculty of Arts, from the hard sciences, and from the faculties of Social Work, Education, and Business. I understand the broad-based appeal of learning about life on the other side of an otherwise impenetrable wall, especially because prison life and “criminal minds” are the subject of many popular dramas.

But the payoff, for me, comes during the course as the sensationalism melts away and students really begin to think critically about narrative, from the first person accounts that we’re reading to the accounts provided by Hollywood, the state, the courts, the media, politicians, and so on. I’ve heard from students who have changed career paths, whose ideas about criminal justice have been transformed, or who continue to seek out and read inmate accounts of incarceration. The general feedback I get about how the course inspires critical thinking and the independent development of ideas is something I really take to heart. Not only are these the foundational skills that even the most applied, technical fields demand, but I also like to think that these are important skills to impart if we want to live in a meaningful democracy. The Liberal Arts and inter-disciplinarity empower students.

This is the third time you have offered this course. What have you learned and changed from offering this course in the past? What has experience taught you?

Teaching a course more than once always allows you to develop new ideas and make connections more explicitly. The second time I taught the course, I brought a couple of formerly incarcerated guest speakers into the classroom. While the narratives we read in the class were eye-opening, being able to listen to, and dialogue with, formerly incarcerated people had a profound impact on a number of students I spoke with after those lectures.

What else would you like to mention about the value of studying prison writing?

I’ll be bringing the founders of two highly regarded Canadian and American prison education initiatives to the University of Regina when Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences convenes here May 26 – June 1 (Walls to Bridges Canada, Bard Prison Initiative). These types of initiatives represent real innovative thinking, and the measured impact that they have on recidivism and employment rates are astounding.