Thoughts from the Gender Barred Colloquium

These week I had the honor to meet Erica Meiners, Eric Stanley, and Chris Vargas who absolutely blew my mind at the Gender Barred Colloquium that tied together gender, sexuality, race, and mass incarceration. With thoughts twirling and whirling, here are some of my newly added vocabulary, points to ponder, new books to read, projects to look into, and the trailer for “Criminal Queers.”

Exploring Rhetoric:

  • civic death – punishment for crimes continues after “re-entry”,  for example: cannot acquire a job, housing, child custody, or vote; therefore, therefor re-entry is a myth and does not provide a civic life
  • previously incarcerated / person behind bars vs. ex-con / prisoner – compare use of language in regards to violence to humans and communities; if we use rhetoric that is dehumanizing we can more easily treat those who are incarcerated without full human rights (like ex-con, prisoner); there is an argument that words like prisoner show the inhumane nature of incarceration
  • Restorative Justice – an alternative to criminal justice where harm is addressed when it happens; for example: peer juries, peace circles, family members in school hallways instead of police
  • Transformative Justice – an alternative to criminal justice where change takes place in the structures and systems that cause crime; for example: shifting funding that is dedicated to surveillance in schools to education; this type of justice comes from coalition work
  • Carceral State – the U. S. is so invested into incarceration that it as become a carceral state which is punishment-orientated; white supremacy = Prison Industrial Complex = carceral state

Points to Ponder:

  • Do gender responsive prisons to meet the needs of women prisoners? The question should be WHY are more women in prison and being arrested for crimes of poverty instead of building more prisons, because more room will be made for more people to become imprisoned. Over crowding in prisons calls not for more prisons, but for how we can provide alternatives to being imprisoned or critique/reform/abolish the criminal system. An other alternative is to ask people behind bars what they want, for example perhaps offering Queer/Trans pods in prisons.
  • Public barriers to decarceration – 1. public’s view of people behind bars is that they are dangerous (the public had to be sold on fear and stranger danger to support incarceration, now if feels like there is no turning back) and we need to reclaim what public safety means to us; 2. communities desire to keep prisons for their economy although expensive to the state
  • Does harm have to equal isolation and punishment?
  • Immigration detention centers are almost all private. People behind bars in these center lack rights (in comparison to those in jails and state and federal prisons) due to their status as non-citizens.
  • The Department of Justice does not collect statistics on trans or non-gender conforming peoples’ interactions with the Prison Industrial Complex, therefor statistics come from the community. In 2008, the TGI Justice Project states that 1 in 3 non-gender conforming people have had experiences with the PIC.
  • We often think about people who are in prison (2+ million), but we also must consider those who are on parole and still part of the PIC (7+ million).
  • When you are behind bars, some must buy into the law and order rhetoric to get parole and to be seen as transformed.
  • Who do we, as a society, have empathy for? Consider the cycle of innocence in the public’s eyes. For example: 1.) We currently think that a young black man being murdered is wrong, but does his innocence as a young person have to do with it? Would we as a society the same reaction be held if he was five years older and murdered? 2.) Who do we elongate childhood for? For what is called emerging adults , health care benefits are available until they are 26. This is done for those who are in school and have not hit white adult markers: marriage, kids, home-ownership, job. Why should childhood be elongated and benefits given to only this group who already has privilege?
  • Media – From the Hays Code to today, the visual media’s role has been to tell viewers who is bad and good; for example, cop shows.

To Read:



  • Below is a trailer for “Criminal Queers” (sequel to Homotopia) by Chris Vargas with Eric Stanley.

Thoughts from the Feminism in Library and Information Science Un-Conference

I spent this last weekend surrounded by beautiful, strong, brilliant, feminist librarians at the Feminism and Library Science Unconfrence.

Here are some of the highlights I’m going to keep in mind especially regarding prison library work:

  • Question your motives and explore reasons behind your interest in your work and projects by having an internal dialogue – ask yourself “What are my motivations behind my actions and interest in this?”
  • If there are bans on library books or policies that affect patrons ability to fulfill their information needs, we, as radical librarians, need to tell our patrons about these policies and where one can access what they are looking for outside their library. As prison librarians, this could mean ensuring patrons have access to a books to prisoners organization that they can request books from via the mail if it is not in conflict with the said policy.
  • When assessing the needs of a community, your report cannot be solely  a deficit report; highlight the community’s strengths and accomplishments.
  • Even though librarians might fear that / feel like they are becoming institutionalized by their employer, remember that librarianship is a form of subversive infiltration.
  • Libraries stand for openness, learning, potential, and success; prison is about confinement, control, surveillance, and being kept. So, what does it mean to have a library in a prison?

If you are interested in more about the conference or viewing resources and readings in Feminism in LIS, visit the Unconference’s wiki. You can also view the twitter feed from the unconference at #feminismLIS.

“Behind Those Books” Documentary on Urban Fiction

I’m super excited for the documentary Behind Those Books to be released. Until then, here is an extended trailer. Through this clip one can see the different views surrounding Urban Fiction and authors, such as Zane, speak.

Here is a little of what the film is about from their website:

“‘Behind Those Books’ reflects the harsh and unpleasant realities of inner-cities across the United States and sheds light on the rationale for these stories to be told. The viewer is taken on a journey that tackles social issues that have been brought to the forefront as a result of this art form. The urban and hip-hop cultures have discussed this topic but it has never been given the attention that it deserves on such a grand scale until now. […] Behind Those Books is a documentary that is guaranteed to change the perception of some and challenge how others feel about tales of street life in the inner-cities.”

behind those books

“I am a abandoned child. My mother was a whore. And the things I saw through these eyes, no child should have had to witness or experience. So am I wrong for writing about my life that I saw?” —Treasure E. Blue
author of Harlem Girl Lost

Urban Fiction: Part I – Introduction

I had never heard of Urban Fiction before moving to Illinois and volunteering in Champaign’s County Jail. During my first two shifts as a Jail Librarian Volunteer, I witnessed requests after requests for this genre that seemed to be the hottest thing in print. Little did I know, this genre has been booming since the 2001 and has history since 1960/70s!

Urban Fiction, also known as Urban Lit, Street Lit, Gansta Lit, and by other names, is fiction that takes place in an urban setting, with urban characters, and with themes that typically effect those living in an urban region. Authors of this genre are primarily black, some writing while they are imprisoned. Sexual acts and violence are no stranger to this genre, nor to the lives of its authors and readers. Some of the highest population of Urban Fiction’s audience are those currently in prison. Urban Lit is a counter narrative (a (re)telling that offers a different perspective to what is usually published, collected, etc.) to many books.

Scholars have differing opinions on Urban Fiction. Some believe that it is low reading, like a trashy book, that is not of high quality. Those who believe that think that prisoners should be reading more elevated works. On the other hand are scholars who believe that prisoners have always favored books that appeal to the outlaw and therefore Urban Fiction is a newer genre with longstanding, appealing themes.

I just picked up a copy of my first piece of Urban Fiction, Donald Goines’s Dopefiend. Only reading will tell what I think about the genre beyond exploring research. From other volunteers I’ve heard that they find the genre poorly written and ‘low brow’, but I’m leery of that. I recently read that Urban Fiction is now becoming canonized through a Norton anthology (unfortunately I don’t remember where I read this at!). In a university literature class taught by Bruce Franklin, author of Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?, some of his students “went on to complain about Goines’s limited vocabulary, short sentences, lack of metaphors, and even errors in grammar. But someone else retorted that his descriptions are so vivid that ‘you not only see the scene, you can smell it'” (Franklin 647).  Renee Gladman adds an interesting perspective on the text: “I see the sentence as this thing you are moving through. You encounter words and punctuation the same way you would see a building or turn onto a street.”

In the future, I will explore two key figures (the father and queen of Urban Fiction) and why prisoners enjoy this genre & how it engages them as readers.

Resources On Urban Fiction:

  • Franklin, H. Bruce. “Can the Penitentiary Teach the Academy How to Read?” PMLA. 123.3 (2008): 643-9.
  • Honig, Megan. Urban Grit: A Guide to Street Lit. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. (This guide, while has a short introduction to the genre, is primarily chapters of sub-genre annotated bibliographies with further sub-sub-genres within each chapter. Sub-genres include crime, coming-of-age, erotica, prison, etc.  Books are rated with a key to indicated level of violence and sexual content.)
  • Morris, Vanessa Irving. The Readers Advisory Guide to Street Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 2012. (This guide is aimed towards libraries to further understand the genre of Street Lit/Urban Fiction. Morris covers the genre’s appeal, history, literary motif, collection development, and provides a list of the genre broken down into subgenres such as GLBTQ, Tween, Graphic Novel, etc.).
  • Wikipedia’s Urban Fiction Page (What is nice about this Wiki article is not only do they provide a nice background, but also a list of authors and they also provides links to The Library Journal’s The Word on the Street book lists.)
  • Small press author and publisher Renee Gladman, a Vassar alumna, to discuss urban fiction. Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hello World!

The function of this blog is to serve as a place of sharing what I am learning about prisons, prisoners as readers/writers, and prison libraries from being a library student and volunteering through a couple of non-profits (one in which I volunteer as a Jail Librarian, and the other that works on building collections for prison libraries with no funding).

So far through my experience of being on the outside looking in on prison libraries and their patrons I’ve learned that the prison system is such a multidimensional machine that it is difficult to know where to start!

This is your invitation to join me on my path of information seeking and exploring.