The Transformative Power of Urban Literature

By Becca Sorgert

As we move beyond Restorative Justice to explore Transformative Justice in the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) with programs such as Changing Lives Through Literature, it is great that works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness have been published where colorblindness and the racial caste are exposed. When readers are engaged through Urban Fiction in the PIC, transformative benefits such as solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are achievable. Through the lens of Transformative Justice, we can reframe current views of Urban Fiction to validate this genre that is deemed inappropriate by gatekeepers in our current carceral state.

Contemporary Urban Fiction plots focus on life in neighborhoods of major cities, such as Chicago or Philadelphia, where, as Vanessa Irvin Morris states, “specific cultural groups live and thrive;” specifically African American or Latino neighborhoods. The main theme of Urban Fiction is of survival, especially “[h]ow to survive on the streets by circumventing pitfalls.” Scholar Megan Sweeney states “Perhaps the most popular genre in the women’s prison is African American urban fiction.” By understanding themes of Urban Fiction, one can see similar values comparable in prisoners’ lives, such as survival.

Vanessa Morris, scholar and librarian, eloquently proves that there are more themes than what is traditionally critiqued with Urban Fiction (crime, drugs, sex). The most critiqued aspects of Urban Fiction are themes in literature that are not isolated to Urban Fiction and contemporary writings. Morris shows that Urban Fiction functions in many different ways beyond the criticized violence and criminal behavior. Instead, what makes Urban Fiction unique are the following literary themes: a fast moving story with background stories, descriptions of living life from living situations to income, the nature of street life and how it operates, how personal relationships work through tough situations involving abuse and disloyalty, style featuring specific products, and how to endure street life and escape from it.

Solidarity, survival, resistance, and self-exploration are common benefits that run through the published research of why reading Urban Fiction in prison is beneficial to prisoners; Urban Fiction highlights these benefits because the genre is primarily written by, and for, people of color, some whom have experience in the PIC. Morris suggests that Urban Fiction “appeals to readers because it offers an opportunity to investigate, validate, and/or make sense of city life.” It is necessary to be able to do this when Alfred Tatum, scholar on black youth reading, brings to light that “[m]any poor black males are too preoccupied with thoughts of their own mortality and the day-to-day energy required to survive.” The inclusion of Urban Fiction for PIC readers provides counter-narratives to literature that is considered the norm and creates, as Amy Bintliff points out, “the freedom to incorporate stories and themes that reflect who they are and what they want to investigate.”

While imprisoned in the white power structure of the PIC, readers find solidarity through text. Sweeney suggests, “Imprisoned fans of urban fiction occasionally emphasize their identification with this spirit of resistance to dominant white power structures.” The novels of Urban Fiction provide a shared experience of living in a white supremacy, being imprisoned under white law, and being kept under white surveillance. Sweeney’s work suggests that Urban Fiction is a counter-narrative that shows how colorblindness and the racial caste system affect non-white people.

When Urban Fiction is not included in collections, it is an attempt to silence and control the transformation of readers who experience a further understanding of their situation in relation to others’ similar situations. This transformation challenges the current operating system, whether it is the PIC or society in general. This solidarity expands to resistance which then spirals to further reform or transformation of power structures at play. Sweeney proposes that the “penal institutions’ fear of urban books seems to stem from the conception of power and agency that many of the books espouse in depicting characters’ efforts to attain and maintain power.”

An essential part of Sweeney’s work is her highlight of readers becoming authors. Some women prisoners expressed that Urban Fiction “inspire[s] a lot of us to write our own books, and tell our own stories.” When the reading of Urban Fiction is combined with creatively sharing one’s own thoughts through writing, these acts further challenge the PIC structure. Anne Fowell Stanford, professor and author on imprisoned women’s experiences, who explored prisoners’ writing offers: “With dehumanizing social practices in jail, writing becomes an act of resistance, sometimes obvious, sometimes masked. […] This writing is dangerous because it proclaims a making and remaking of selves despite state attempts to confine, fix, and stabilize identities as ‘inmates’.”.

The significance of the cyclical culture of Urban Fiction, one that creates writers from readers, is that it breaks the culture of silence and creates power, resistance, and a means of survival through expression. Creating more writers shows powerful and transformative actions, which is why there is such a threat from multiple and uncontrollable dialogues between the author and their own work, characters within their novel, and between the reader and the author. As a reader, these options for inner dialogue or with other readers allow for self-criticism and positioning oneself in various roles such as the reader, author, main character, as the perpetrator, and / or the victim, etc.

The time has come to engage with the readers and writers in the PIC through authentic dialogues to shape the collection development policies on Urban Fiction. Building relationships with readers through a dialogue technique that embraces feelings and expressiveness will build an effective and inclusive reading collection (such as in a PIC library) that functions, like Urban Fiction, on multiple levels for imprisoned patrons. The transformation from an arrogant to loving perception of Urban Fiction allows readers access to desired literacy and solidarity from their community. Access to this community and genre creates an authentic dialogue between readers and writers to formbonds of support, resistance, and exploration that are essential to survival in the PIC and the white supremacy we live in.

Becca Sorgert is completing her masters of Library and Information Science and is a volunteer jail librarian. You can follow her at her blog (and find more Urban Fiction resources) at Exploring Prison Librarianship. She can be reached by email at

Further Reading:

Bintliff, Amy. Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning Through Restorative and Social Justice Education

Morris, Vanessa Irvin. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature

Standford, Anne Fowell. “Lit by Each Other’s Light: Women’s Writing at Cook Country Jail.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Sweeney, Megan. “‘I lived that book!’: Reading Behind bars.” Interrupted Life: Experience of Incarcerated Women in the United States

Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons.

Tatum, Alfred. Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males: Closing the Achievement Gap.


Gender Matters

By Tara Knoll


Alternative sentencing works to treat offenders as individuals. A crucial part of this function is the acknowledgment that female offenders are different in significant ways from their male counterparts. By observing both the predominantly male New Bedford CLTL program and the all-female Lynn-Lowell CLTL program, I found that, rather then equate male and female offenders, CLTL calls upon their different pathways to crime and gender-specific needs to structure programs that address the different issues they face. That isn’t to say that CLTL’s division of gender in these programs makes essentialist claims, but rather CLTL acknowledges that, realistically, male and female offenders often face different issues in prison and in reentry in terms of life circumstances and risk factors.

A recent report on programming needs for women offenders by the National Institute of Justice emphasizes, “Women offenders have needs different from those of men, stemming in part from their disproportionate victimization from sexual or physical abuse and their responsibility for children.” Further, according to the Center for Effective Public Policy’s 2010 “Reentry Considerations for Women,” it is critical to consider that “women [offenders] have different communication styles than men….” Robert Waxler and Jean Trounstine prefer to have all-male and all-female participants, respectively, in the classroom. While there are several co-ed CLTL groups, Waxler explained to me, “There are single gender groups primarily. For me, I find that it’s helpful to have an all male group in terms of picking which stories to use and anticipating lines of inquiry.”

When I observed the New Bedford session in which the participants discussed Russell Banks’ Affliction, I found that the session reflected the New Bedford program’s focus on male-centered issues. Affliction is in many ways a text about what it means to be male. Its time frame is deer-hunting season, “an ancient male right,” its male characters are rugged and violent, and most importantly, the protagonist, Wade, is “very good at being male in this world.” During the discussion, the participants considered what it means to be a father and a man, a discussion prompted in part by the protagonist’s own earnest question, “What do men do?” As the narrator reaches the conclusion of the story, he reflects, “[O]ur stories, Wade’s and mine, describe the lives of boys and men for thousands of years, boys who were beaten byt heir fathers, whose capacity for love and trust was crippled almost at birth….” The participants identified with the narrative in part because the narrator solicited their identification, encouraging them to realize that the issues they face—a troubled relationship with violence or a broken childhood—have been faced by men just like them throughout history. The narrator’s “I” because “we” as he observes the difficult nature of “how we absent ourselves from the tradition of male violence.”

But in order for the narrator’s “we” to include “boys and men for thousands of years,” he must exclude the girls and women who have been afflicted by the same violence, whose “capacity for love and trust” was also “crippled almost at birth.” In a male-dominated criminal justice system, female offenders are often overlooked in studies and in policy development. Although women represent a smaller proportion of the offending population than men, the increase in the female offender population in prisons is alarming. According to a report commissioned by the Institute on Women and Criminal Justice, female imprisonment increased 757 percent between 1977 and 2004, surpassing that of men in all 50 states. One-fifth of men are incarcerated for drug offenses, compared to one-third of women. According to the National Institute of Corrections, incarcerated women, on average, are survivors of physical and/or sexual abuse, have multiple physical and mental health problems, and are the single parents of children, accounting for nearly 250,000 children whose mothers are in prison.

When people talk about offenders and even about this program, so many times it’s not discussed in terms of women,” Trounstine told me. “People imagine it’s more serious if we discuss these things in terms of men. Men are the ‘real’ offenders, the ‘serious’ ones. If a [female offender] is reading a book it’s just a way to appease her.” According to Trounstine, incorporating men into the all-female Lynn-Lowell sessions would certainly add diverse perspectives, but the women feel most comfortable communicating in a room of only women. That is, apart from Judge Dever, whose presence in the room seems to help the women gain confidence. I observed the sixth and penultimate session of the Lynn-Lowell program, and it was clear that the classroom at Middlesex Community College was a comfortable space. The women conversed playfully with Trounstine, whom they called Jean, and Judge Dever, or “Judge D.” “I want them to feel relaxed and safe in this room,” Trounstine explained to me. “At the same time, I want them to see me as a role model.”

During the session, the participants discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a mainstay of Trounstine’s syllabus. Trounstine launched the discussion with a question many participants had asked or hinted at during “the Go-Round,” a pre-discussion exercise in which each participant expresses her thoughts on a provided question: does Tea Cake, a young and charming suitor, really love the novel’s protagonist, Janie? The participants used this question as a lens to discuss romance, courtship, hardship, and physical abuse. One participant introduced a significant complication to Tea Cake’s alleged love for Janie. “If he loves her, why does he beat her?” she asked. Trounstine later explained to me, “The male-female relationship is huge for them, and they often talk about the men in their lives through the characters.” According to the Center for Effective Public Policy, “the criminal experiences of women are often best understood in the context of unhealthy relationships (e.g., a male partner who encourages substance abuse or prostitution).” The participants turned to a passage in which Tea Cake beats Janie and engaged in a difficult discussion that exposed the complexity of the relation between love and abuse. They struggled to reconcile Tea Cake’s charming behavior with his violence.

After the discussion had progressed, one participant expressed a striking claim: “Janie moves from object so subject of her own life.” Her transition is a remarkable one. The participants recognized that a love story can be a tool to talk about something else; at the same time, however, they explored the human qualities of this narrative device. One participant pointed out, “Janie shapes herself around Tea Cake.” By discussing Janie’s voice and her silence during her three marriages, the participants investigated what it means to shape oneself around a significant other, or a family member, or a source of addiction.

Toward the end of the discussion, one participant asserted, “I admired Janie in the end. For not settling, and standing up and being a strong person.” The desire for a transition from object to subject that the participants observed in the texts reflects the participants’ own positions in reentering society after their experience in prison or with the criminal justice system in general. Like Janie, CLTL participants struggle to be perceived as a person instead of as a project to be shaped or a failure to be scorned. Deep engagement with and discussion of literature provides a forum for former offenders to express and question this struggle. In CLTL, the text selection and discussion is structured in a way that recognizes the similarities inherent in offenders’ experiences with the criminal justice system while simultaneously acknowledging that gender matters.


Tara Knoll, a student at Princeton, is a regular contributor to the Changing Lives Through Literature blog and is currently working on her senior thesis. She can be reached for contact here.