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Prison Writers are Focus of New Course

Doran Larson and members of his class on prison writing.
Associate Professor of English Doran Larson talks with members of his class on prison writing.

Two years ago, Associate Professor of English Doran Larson ­visited the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility with a discussion group. Last fall he was back with another group — ­students from his English 442 course, Booked: Prison Writing. Offering a survey of literature composed behind bars — by authors ranging from Socrates to Primo Levi to Malcolm X and postcolonial writers — the course also included a field trip to observe Attica inmates in a creative writing class taught by Larson.

Based on his initial experience at Attica, Larson immersed himself in prison literature and then approached the College last year with a plan to create a class where students would interact with the Attica prisoners. Every student in the seminar participated in one of Larson's creative writing classes at Attica. They described the experience as not only influencing their reading of class materials, but also serving to humanize the prisoners.

"In other literature courses, you do things with your imagination. You never get further than ideas. In this case we're getting at the real meat of life," says Nick Fesette '09.

The Attica classes themselves are not unlike creative writing classes at any institution. "The steps of developing as a writer are very similar," Larson says. He finds the classes to be demanding but also describes the experience as invigorating. "The men there really need the class," he says. "It becomes vital to their mental well-being. Providing that is very energizing."

The Hamilton course comprised mostly seniors drawn from a variety of majors. Members of the class presented a campus program of readings, "Voices from the Inside," late in the semester. In the literature covered in the class, students noticed recurrent themes of self-reflection. This motif stood out to students even more dramatically once they saw the little human interaction possible in the prison itself. They also found a strong desire in the writing to communicate beyond the page. "This is their way of reaching out beyond the prison, and we're listening to them," says Emily Howell '09.

Most of the students said they were motivated to take the class in part for the opportunity to visit a prison. "It's not something you typically get to do; you're never going to get the experience" again, says Kaitlin Hill '09.

While the youngest men in Attica aren't far removed from college age, "they've had a different experience just to survive in prison," Larson says. "They've had to learn things no one has ever had to learn." He also noted that prisoners are motivated to take the class. "They're not there to please anyone," he says. "They're not getting credit for it. They're just there to improve their writing."

— By Nora Grenfell '12

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