When asked about what attracted her to writing about life in prisons, Katy Ryan, associate professor of English, pointed to people she knows who are in prison and to her distrust of cages. After joining the department of English at West Virginia University and teaching a course on prison studies, Ryan turned an interest into a research passion.
“I needed to understand how the U.S. came to be the biggest jailer in the world,” she said.
Ryan’s new project involves working with archives around the state in order to learn about “Work & Hope,” a prison magazine published at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville in in the early part of the 20th century.
In particular, she hopes to travel to the southern part of the state and find more information on Maria Parker, who contributed a monthly column to the magazine.
For this research project, she has been awarded a Senate Grant for Research and Scholarship and a West Virginia Humanities Council Fellowship.
A related essay, “Prison, Time, Kairos in Langston Hughes’s Scottsboro Limited” is featured in the current issue of “Modern Drama.” The essay analyzes the history and haunted ending of Langston Hughes’ play “Scottsboro Limited.”
The 1931 play was a response to the convictions of nine African American teenagers in Alabama who were accused of raping two white women. Eight of the defendants were sentenced to death, and one to life. Through mass mobilization and legal resilience, the young lives were spared, yet each of them spent between six and 20 years in Alabama prisons.
Though the events in Scottsboro transpired decades ago, Ryan sees the ongoing relevance.
“White violence and the criminalization of black life have a long history in our country,” Ryan said. “As I was writing this essay on Scottsboro, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and Freddie Gray were killed. The same month this essay appeared in print, nine black people were massacred in a church in South Carolina.”
The ability to stand up and write about controversial social injustices is one of the reasons Langston Hughes stood out to her.
“Hughes was dedicated to the truth that black lives matter,” she said.
Ryan will also share her expertise in a chapter in the Cambridge University Press volume, “American Literature in Transition: 1980-1990.”
“My chapter focuses on three works of creative nonfiction that capture this threshold decade in US prison history,” Ryan said.
On top of this, she is continuing her work with the Appalachian Prison Book Project, an organization she founded that sends free books to people in prisons. With two colleagues in the department of English, she facilitates a book club in the women’s prison at Hazelton.
Ryan will also help organize the Fifth Annual Conference on Higher Education in Prison in Pittsburgh this November. Ryan said the conference is “a wonderful opportunity for people who are involved or interested in educational justice to share information and ideas.”
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