Reading between the bars

Dalhousie course explores prison literature

Jason Haslam, associate professor of English at Dalhousie University, teaches a course that focuses on the writings and poetry of prison inmates. Photo: Dorian Geiger
Jason Haslam, associate professor of English at Dalhousie University, teaches a course that focuses on the writings and poetry of prison inmates. Photo: Dorian Geiger

Jason Haslam’s fascination in prison was sparked by his own encounters with the law.

He met the back seat of a police cruiser as a youngster after some mischief and a broken window.

“That got me thinking about the social justice issues involved in prison,” he said.

Haslam, 41, is now a Dalhousie University English professor who teaches a course on prison literature.

Instead of teaching grammatically correct sentences, Haslam lectures on prison sentences — and the writings of jailed convicts.

He thinks studying inmate perspectives is valuable and can widen the understanding of human nature, the justice system and why people commit crimes.

“Prison is one of those topics that, outside of certain disciplines like law or corrections, isn’t really discussed,” said Haslam. “Showing students how much it permeates our society and culture gives them a new outlook — not just on the prison, but society and culture.”

Prison literature is an established area of study in the United States, but the genre is still gaining traction in Canada. Haslam remains one of few Canadian academics who teaches the subject.

His course reading list includes American and Canadian prison literature, writings of enslaved African-Americans and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the work of political prisoners such as former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Haslam thinks prison literature is as beneficial to those doing the writing, too. For inmates, writing is an escape from the stark reality of life in a cell.

“On a basic level, it helps people develop skills that they can apply once they’re out of prison,” said Haslam. “Anything that helps someone in a cage feel more human is a good thing.”

Eric Young, an inmate at Saskatoon Provincial Correctional Centre, agrees.

“Writing and art is a good pastime,” said Young, interviewed through email. “It gives me a better understanding of literature. It helps me to learn new ideas and cope with prison life.”

Young, 51, who has been incarcerated for 16 months, believes prison literature can teach students in a way regular books cannot.

“It will give insight on the life of an inmate and help students understand how a person came to be an inmate. It should be taught as a class, as there are so many inmates in the world.”

Matt Ritchie became captivated with prison literature after taking Haslam’s class in 2008.

“A lot of us probably don’t have that much experience personally with going to prison,” he said. “They should offer it full time if they could. It’s a unique approach to English literature.”

A scheduling conflict prevented Haslam from teaching the course at Dalhousie this semester, but he said it will return next fall.