“Prison Writer as Witness: Can DH Read for Social Justice?” by Doran Larson, the Edward North Chair of Greek and Greek Literature and Professor of Literature & Creative Writing, was recently published online by Digital Humanities Quarterly. The open-access, peer-reviewed, digital journal is published by the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations.
Larson’s article draws from the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an ever-growing digital collection of non-fiction essays written by the incarcerated, as well as by prison workers and volunteers. He describes the development of the APWA as it grew from a small collection of essays into his book, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, and then continued growing into a public collection of more than 2,000 essays as a project of the Digital Humanities Initiative.
Larson says he “had not set out to become an editor of prison witness (let alone a digital humanist),” and points to the writings in the APWA as an example of the power and reach that digital humanities can provide. By creating a relationship between the writer and the reader, he notes that “when incarcerated writers write of their situation, the reader — as a co-subject of policing systems, or their beneficiary — sees revealed their own legal situation within the current order.”
Though there is data in the archive to be mined, Larson says “it is the base in cellular reading that reveals that such witness is not like reading fiction or other literary texts bound by time or subject. Here, writing is not representation; it is human and (re)humanizing witness to the legal and extra-legal conditions that surround and demark citizenship and fully human status inside a carceral regime.”