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Doing Time, Writing Lives

Doing Time, Writing Lives

Refiguring Literacy and Higher Education in Prison

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Patrick W. Berry


Paperback (Other formats: E-book)
160 pages, 6 x 9, 2 illustrations


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About the Book

Winner, Coalition for Community Writing Outstanding Book Award 2019

Doing Time, Writing Lives
offers a much-needed analysis of the teaching of college writing in U.S. prisons, a racialized space that—despite housing more than 2 million people—remains nearly invisible to the general public. Through the examination of a college-in-prison program that promotes the belief that higher education in prison can reduce recidivism and improve life prospects for the incarcerated and their families, author Patrick W. Berry exposes not only incarcerated students’ hopes and dreams for their futures but also their anxieties about whether education will help them.
Combining case studies and interviews with the author’s own personal experience of teaching writing in prison, this book chronicles the attempts of incarcerated students to write themselves back into a society that has erased their lived histories. It challenges polarizing rhetoric often used to describe what literacy can and cannot deliver, suggesting more nuanced and ethical ways of understanding literacy and possibility in an age of mass incarceration.


Patrick W. Berry is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University. He is a coauthor of Transnational Literate Lives in Digital Times, which received the 2013 CCCC Research Impact Award and the Advancement of Knowledge Award, and a coauthor of a collaborative webtext published in Kairos that received the Computers and Composition Michelle Kendrick Outstanding Digital Production/Scholarship Award.


"Patrick W. Berry presents a detailed and compelling case for the transformative potential that higher education and literacy courses can have for incarcerated people. By focusing on individuals’ narratives of literacy as (former) students and teachers, and centering his analysis around the personal meaning they ascribe to writing and literacy, Berry presents a different facet of the often-debated 'value' of higher education behind bars."Bianca C. ReisdorfInternational Journal of Communication

"Berry’s multifaceted approach considers not only classroom interactions, but also the motivations of teachers, the structural challenges that programs face, and the process of reentry, making this study an important contribution to the conversations surrounding the pressing issue of mass incarceration and its connection to higher education."— Alexandra J. Cavallaro, Rhetoric Review

“Berry offers a nuanced discussion of the role that literacy education can—and perhaps cannot—play in reconstructing the narratives of the incarcerated, adding an important perspective to the framing of teaching writing in prison. He thoughtfully and perceptively complicates the overly romantic and optimistic narrative that is often articulated by advocates of prison education, providing a much more nuanced treatment of the topic than what is usually offered.”—Deborah Appleman, editor, From the Inside Out: Letters to Young Men and Other Writings
“This compelling narrative combines Berry’s own story as the writing teacher in an innovative academic program with both the stories of his students—who happen simultaneously to be in college and in prison—and those of his fellow teachers who come to this prison program by many paths. He weaves a tale of multidirectional teaching and learning, and underscores commonplaces in a haunting way. With this volume, Berry adds his passion as a literacy teacher and scholar to our ever-deepening view of both the advantages and the limitations of literacy as an amazingly flexible resource.”—Jacqueline Jones Royster, Georgia Institute of Technology

Berry makes a powerful argument for the importance of education and literacy in prison. What sets his work apart from most other prisoner education advocates is exactly what makes the argument so strong. Yes, the education of prisoners reduces recidivism. No, education is not a panacea that will solve the problem of crime. But neither of these should be what drives a strong push to educate prisoners. Instead, education and literacy should be provided to every prisoner because doing so is the right thing.---Christopher Zoukis, New York Journal of Books

"In his work, Berry discusses the purpose of prison literacy courses. While Berry is an enthusiastic proponent of giving inmates access to higher education, he writes that literacy programs cannot by themselves assure incarcerated people have good prospects when they leave prison."--Grace Bird, Inside Higher Education

Berry demonstrates how literature practice in prison can be a powerful resource that offers prision writers and their teachers hope for a better future. Project Justice exemplifies a reciprocal humanity vital to understanding the significance of the links between universities and prisons and the ever-growing-school-to-prison pipleline."--ProtoView