Computational Methods and Critical Incarceration Theory Using Big Data to Trace Technical Communication in Prisons

Eric James Stephens, Clemson University

dissertation in the making

What's Wrong with the Prison System?

Some Major Works on Prisons in America

Loïc Wacquant (2009)
Michelle Alexander (2010)

Putting Aside Race... For a Moment

Theorizing Prisons

A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Deleuze and Guattari (1987)

"Schizoanalysis rejects any idea of pretraced destiny, whatever name is given to it--divine, anagogic, historical, economic, structural, hereditary, or syngtagmatic" (p. 13).

How does technical and professional communication function in prisons?

"Ethics of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust"

Katz (1992)

"Here, as in most technical writing, I will argue, in most deliberative rhetoric, the focus is on expediency, on technical criteria as a means to an end. But here expediency and the resulting ethos of objectivity, logic, and narrow focus that characterize the most technical writing, are taken to extremes and applies to the mass destruction of human beings. Here, expediency is an ethical end as well" (p. 257).

Discipline and Punish

Foucault (1977)

"Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. . . . [I]n short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers" (p. 201).

Inclinations: A Critique of Rectitude

Cavarero (2016)

"It is rather to think relation itself as originality and constitutive, as an essential dimension of the human, which--far from limiting itself to putting free and autonomous individuals in relation to each other, as the doctrine of the social impact--calls into question our being creatures who are materially vulnerable and, often in greatly unbalanced circumstances, cosigned to one another" (p. 13).

Another Video!

Site of Study: Inmate Handbooks

a traditional rhetorical analysis

"This handbook is designed to serve you as a guide for institutional living by setting forth the major rules, regulations, and policies of the Alabama Department of Corrections. There are rules, such as the laws of the United States or the State of Alabama, which apply to everyone. There are rules for people where they work, and rules for members of the family in which they live. It is important to follow these rules so that we can live and work together without problems and without unnecessary friction. There are rules and regulations for inmates committed to the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. They are designed to help the inmate population live together as safely and as comfortable as possible."

Big Data

(my many thanks to...)

The Process

Step 1: Gather the Data

Step 2: Index the Data

Quantitative Content Analysis

Natural Language Processing

Identifying Actors (cf. Spinuzzi's Network)

Possible Human-Actors to Emerge: inmates, correctional officers, wardens, external families, internal families

Step 3: Reestablish an Hypothesis

A continuum of discipline: rewards vs. punishments

External measurement tool: recidivism statistics from Bureau of Justice Statistics

Step 4: Develop Coding Schema

Step 5: Train Your Coders

Step 6: Testing Inter-coder Reliability

Step 7: Put Coder Research into the Computer

Step 8: Repeat Steps 5-7 until the Computer Can Do It Better than a Human

Latent Semantic Analysis

Step 9: Look at Your Results

Step 10: Make them Look Beautiful

Gephi, Tableaux

Step 11: Get a Job

Bringing Race back into the Picture

you adopt a methodology, you adopt its flaws

ideologies will be reflected in your algorithms

revisiting steps 4 & 5: coding and coders

Could writing assessment ecologies be racist? (Inoue, 2016)

Yes. Yes, they are. And so is coding big data.

Future Research

Sites of Study

  • Correctional Officer Handbooks
  • Training Materials for Prison Staff
  • Syllabi and Application Materials for Educational Courses
  • Legislation for Prisons


  • Local vs. State vs. Federal
  • American legislation vs. [insert any country here]
  • Public vs. Private
  • Correctional Facilities vs. Immigration Detention Centers
Dissertation: How do inmate handbooks, as a TPC genre, seek to enact "corrections"?
Larger Goals: Developing new, open-source tools to re/create ethical big data analysis methodologies.
Driving Question: How can I use these tools to re/discover and disrupt narratives to enact social justice?

(Jones, Moore, & Walton, 2016)

Thank You!

Eric James Stephens, Clemson University,


Created with images by PublicDomainPictures - "black business computer" • janetmck - "DATA" • Brett Jordan - "Binary" • Unsplash - "books library education" • chrizzel_lu - "road wood nature"

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.