Contraband literacies: Incarcerated women and writing-as-activism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Writing Program


Eileen E. Schell


Writing, Activism, Prison, Contraband literacies, Incarcerated, Women

Subject Categories

Rhetoric and Composition


This qualitative dissertation argues that women's prison writing workshops are potential spaces for enacting feminist critical literacy education and realizing counterhegemonic resistance. Data is drawn primarily from interviews with teacher-facilitators at four prisons that house women in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. and from textual artifacts ranging from project funding proposals to prison writing workshop anthologies. While current prison literacy scholarship focuses primarily on adult basic education and GED work, this study situates the prison writing workshop as an alternative literacy site for incarcerated women to engage in both critical self-reflection and cultural critique. As this research indicates, transgressive work can happen for women in prison as their words travel beyond prison walls and etch away at public preconceptions of their identity. Through the production and strategic circulation of prison writings, incarcerated women and prison educators widen the reach of critical literacy education by engaging in cross-cultural dialogue at multiple points along a continuum of contraband literacy. This dissertation closes by offering a set of concrete pedagogical and activist strategies (currently enacted by an interdisciplinary set of prison scholars) for literacy researchers and writing teachers to engage. Opportunities range from overt engagement with writers in prison through prison writing workshops to the development of college courses that train literacy tutors for work in prisons to further research on the oppressive ideologies and politics that many prison writing workshops seek to resist. Such efforts offer significant contributions to the struggle for equity in critical prison literacy education as teachers and writers work to make change both within and beyond the razor wire.