American Prison Writing Archive Exhibit in Burke Library

Earlier this month, the Digital Humanities Initiative, better known as DHi, and Doran Larson, the Walcott-Bartlett Chair of Ethics and Christian Evidences, celebrated the entry of the 1,000th letter into the DHi’s American Prison Writing Archive (APWA). Initiated in 2009 when Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, the archive has grown to more than 1,200 responses in paper form and more than 1,100 online.

Beginning with the question - what is it like for you to get life in prison? - the 1,000th letter, in its handwritten form, is four pages in length. The writer describes devolving into a wraith, a shadow of his former self, then ascending into anger, then falling into a period of not caring, and finally emerging into a feeling of hope.

The original request for submissions had an August 2011 deadline, necessary to meet the publishing schedule for a book Larson planned to edit. But the essays never stopped coming. In 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of the letters as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America, the largest collection to date of non-fiction writing by currently incarcerated Americans writing about their experience.

As Larson explain, the imperative to build the APWA grew from the clear evidence that, once invited, incarcerated people would not give up the chance to tell their stories. The archive now has enough work to fill over 16 books the size of Fourth City (a 338-page, 7”x10” volume).

This December’s celebration also recognized the introduction of a new transcription tool that allows volunteers to more easily enter handwritten letters in text form into the archive. The DHi Collection Development Team and primarily Peter MacDonald, Shay Foley, and Lisa McFall worked with consultants DHi hired to construct the Transcription tool. 

The APWA received early funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  In early 2017, it was awarded a three-year NEH grant that has enabled it to double its size and increase its faceted search capacities as well as further solicit essays especially from prison staff.

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