American Prison Writing Archive

In a story titled “Shining a Light on Life Behind Bars, The Nation featured the American Prisoner Writing Archive (APWA), comparing its legacy to that of the slave narratives in its offering of non-establishment perspectives on incarceration in the United States. Founded by Walcott-Bartlett Chair of Ethics and Christian Evidences and Professor of Literature and Creative Writing Doran Larson, the APWA was begun when he invited prisoners from across the country to tell their stories, compiling nonfiction essays into a book called Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America.

Larson explained the evolution of the archive, maintained within the Digital Humanities Initiative. “The deadline for the book passed in fall of 2012, but the essays kept flowing to our mailbox. The folks inside knew the essays wouldn’t be published [in the book], but they just wanted someone to read their work,” said Larson. “The overflow of essays led to the birth of the American Prisoner Writing Archive.”

The article’s author, prison abolitionist Ella Fassler, wrote, “After reading just a few dozen essays, bold themes begin to emerge: brutal retaliation against the incarcerated for minor infractions, such as misreporting the number of toilet-paper rolls in an individual’s cell; assault and rape by corrections officers; cover-ups of corruption, suicide, institutional (and explicit) racism; inadequate or no health care; and the recognition that prison is the new form of slavery in the United States. There are also documentations of extraordinary resilience, resistance to dehumanizing practices, and the will to rebuild damaged lives from inside.”

“Without the slave narratives of Frederick Douglas, Josiah Henson, Lewis and Milton Clarke, and Sojourner Truth, to name a few, the public would have had to rely exclusively on the (white) establishment’s views of black individuals and of slavery itself,” she observed. … “In this light, it is worth considering the prison letters’ potential legacies. The University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South archive hosts over 11 million words of first-person accounts by former slaves; the APWA has grown to approximately 20 percent of that size within just nine years.

The article concluded with a quote from Larson, “Prison writing is one of the oldest literary genres we have. Incarcerated people have been writing about their experiences since we started putting them in cages.” 

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