Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration works from the premise that if the law establishes and maintains both its practical and symbolic authority on the basis of its monopoly on legally sanctioned violence and the suffering threatened and delivered by such violence, then we cannot know the full human cost or concrete moral status of any legal state without human witness to the depth and manner of suffering meted out by such violence. The prison writer stands in the position to offer such witness. The prison writer knows the law's violence in the flesh. For every other writer, reflection upon the degree and manner of suffering meted out under legal sanction-that is, reflection upon the full human cost of the contemporary legal order-is necessarily speculative. In close readings of first-person witness from prisons in the U.S., Ireland, and Africa, Witness in the Era of Mass Incarceration discovers literary tropes that chart at once local, national, and transnational conditions of carceral experience-the extant conditions of legalized suffering. In exhibiting the labor required to move from institutionalized abjection to the minimum requirements of rights-bearing personhood, this witness offers the sole credible vision of the possubility of a post carceral understanding of freedom.
Doran Larson is Wolcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing at Hamilton College, where he directs The American Prison Writing Archive.