U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s in a book? My Prison Library Copy of Wall Tappings.

I’m writing a paper on rage in African American women’s prison writing this semester (I am very very excited). I had been searching for a copy of Wall Tappings: An International Anthology of Women’s Prison Writings from 200 to the Present, edited by Judith Scheffler, one of the only anthologies of women’s prison writing, ever (which seems ridiculous to me). The volume’s contents are diverse (ranging from Ancient Rome to Apartheid South Africa to Iran) and incredibly useful, in a world in which published women’s prison writing is rare. The library didn’t have a copy, it’s out of print, and I didn’t want to spend 40 dollars on a used book (evidence of the broader lack of scholarship on women’s prison writing, but that’s a rant for another time). I finally found a copy on amazon for 20 and bit the bullet (I love buying books, but I am so firm about spending no more than 15 dollars for them). When I opened the package with the book, I found out that my copy of Wall Tappings had been deaccessioned from the Tennessee Prison for Women’s Library. The Tennessee Prison for Women was opened in 1966 and is a maximum security prison for women in Nashville Tennessee. The Prison also houses death row for female inmates for the state of Tennessee.

The prison has been shrouded in controversy lately, as the top three Warden’s were recently under investigation by the Tennessee Department of Corrections, after medications were not being administered to incarcerated women and essential positions remained vacant. I searched for information on the prison’s library, but I couldn’t find any. That doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist, but after the 1994 crime bill and the elimination of pell grants for the incarcerated, prison libraries and education programs for the incarcerated aren’t as common as they once were.

Owning this book also made me think about the women who read my copy of Wall Tappings before me. While I am a Ph.D student writing about women’s prison writing with the help of this book, it may have been read by countless incarcerated women before landing in my living room. Who had read it? Did it inspire any women to write themselves? Why would it have been sold off on amazon? Was nobody reading it? Or did the prison library downsize or even close?

The Tennessee Prison for Women offers special education classes, adult equivalency, and vocational programs, but little in the way of college in prison classes or writing workshops. Because the majority of incarcerated people are men (even though women of color are the fastest growing prison population) many of the bigger college in prison programs (like the Inside Out Prison Exchange Program and The Bard Prison Initiative) serve primarily male prison populations. The lack of liberal arts education in the Tennessee Prison for Women is concerning and may contribute to the selling off of this anthology. I can’t really know.

So for not now, I will write my paper on rage in African American Women’s Prison Writing, knowing that the volume I am using to do so, has probably been read by incarcerated women themselves.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hi Holly,

    There are some programs at the Tennessee Prison for Women if I recall correctly. I have a friend who taught college classes there as recently as this past summer. (I’ll double check.) I can check to see just what sort of offerings there were/are and what context or subject matter if you’d like. It can be difficult to know. As you know, I work at a men’s prison through something called The Tennessee Higher Education Initiative, which is a non-profit that works with local community colleges to offer associate degrees of one kind or another. If one were to check official institutional sites, the program wouldn’t appear. You’d have to go to the THEI site to figure things out: http://www.theinitiativetn.org/ The issue of publicizing college in prisons is interesting given differing political climates in different states.

    From my own experience anyway, libraries are pretty bad in most prisons and depend primarily on donations. This is an interesting question, how this book ended up in your hands. I wonder whether someone assigned it for a class or donated several copies. My students have six novels along with a history textbook, and the novels were donated so that each person could have them. After the first semester I taught the course, the books became common access and have been passed on to the next group. After I’ve left or decide to teach something else, I wonder what will happen to all of those books? I suspect they’ll end up in the library, and the extra ones will go out of circulation to be sold off. Maybe that’s what happened to yours? It’s hard to know. I’d be surprised if there was no library at all, but then again, I get surprised by what goes on in prisons pretty regularly.

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