Hamilton Professor Doran Larson’s American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) project has been awarded $262,000 by the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH), the single largest NEH grant awarded solely to a Hamilton faculty member in 17 years.
APWA collects, catalogs and makes fully searchable essays written by inmates across the country and is part of Hamilton’s Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi). Larson, APWA’s principal investigator, is the Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing.
“Doran Larson has been committed to this project for many years, and I’m pleased to see his groundbreaking efforts recognized by the NEH,” said Hamilton President David Wippman. “What began as a means of collecting inmates’ essays has evolved into an extensive digital archive of incarcerated Americans' writing. This funding will expand the archive’s ability to solicit and digitize new essays,” Wippman said. “Hamilton is fortunate to be the repository of this important collection.”
Larson’s interest in prison writing began in 2006 when he started leading a creative writing workshop at Attica Correctional Faculty. After two years of research, he realized that prison writing is as deeply shaped by the conditions of incarceration as by the biographical background writers bring to their efforts. In 2008 when he launched a seminar on American prison writing at Hamilton, he also found that there existed no volume that offered a broad sampling of writing by inmates. Thus, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, edited by Larson, was born.
An article about Larson's prison writing project was published in the Fall 2014 Alumni Review.
The American Prison Writing Archive evolved from that book project. Although the deadline for submitting essays for Fourth City passed in August 2011, submissions never ceased.
“We opened a vein that was not going to heal,” Larson said. “The incarcerated were not going to rest if they could write about their experience.” The APWA currently holds more than 1,200 essays in its paper files, with 854 essays on line.
The APWA was designed, built and is now maintained by the DHi team. Behind-the-site work of building the first fully searchable prison-writing archive—scanning and coding each page of text, refining search features, transcribing hand-written essays, making a fully sustainable digital archive—continues.
The U.S. has the largest prison system on earth, Larson said. “This is the first national effort to document what it’s like to be in it.”
The three-year NEH grant will enable the APWA to double the size of the archive and increase its faceted search capacities, Larson said. For example, a researcher will be able to specifically search for writing by inmates’ race, state, religion and with specific keywords such as “foster care.”
Part of the grant money will also be used to further solicit essays. “I want to begin soliciting work from prison staff.” Larson said. “They have equally important experiences that need to be shared.”
Larson’ essays on prison writing and prison issues have been published in College Literature, Radical Teacher, English Language Notes, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The (online) Atlantic Monthly. He is also the editor of The Beautiful Prison, a special issue of the legal journal, Studies in Law, Politics, and Society.
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports research and learning in history, literature, philosophy, and other areas of the humanities by funding selected, peer-reviewed proposals from around the nation.