Browse a Huge Collection of Prison Newspapers: 1800–2020

“By the end of the eigh­teenth and the begin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, the gloomy fes­ti­val of pun­ish­ment was dying out… Pun­ish­ment, then, will tend to become the most hid­den part of the penal process.” — Michel Fou­cault

The study of crime in the late 1800s began with racist pseu­do­science like cran­iom­e­try and phrenol­o­gy, both of which have made a dis­turb­ing come­back in recent years. In his 1876 book, Crim­i­nal Man, the “father of crim­i­nol­o­gy,” Cesare Lom­brosco, defined “the crim­i­nal” as “an atavis­tic being who repro­duces in his per­son the fero­cious instincts of prim­i­tive human­i­ty and the infe­ri­or of ani­mals.” Lom­brosco believed that cer­tain cra­nial and facial fea­tures cor­re­spond to a “love of orgies and the irre­sistible crav­ing for evil for its own sake, the desire not only to extin­guish life in the vic­tim, but to muti­late the corpse, tear its flesh, and drink its blood.” That such descrip­tions pre­ced­ed Bram Stok­er’s Drac­u­la by sev­er­al years may be no coin­ci­dence at all.

No such thing as a nat­ur­al crim­i­nal type exists, but this has not stopped 19th cen­tu­ry prej­u­dices from embed­ding them­selves in law enforce­ment, the prison sys­tem and the cul­ture at large in the Unit­ed States. Out­side of the most sen­sa­tion­al­ist cas­es, how­ev­er, we rarely hear from incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple them­selves, though they’ve had plen­ty say about their human­i­ty in print since the turn of the 19th cen­tu­ry, when the first prison news­pa­per, For­lorn Hope, was pub­lished in New York City on March 24, 1800.

“In the inter­ven­ing 200 years,” notes JSTOR, “over 500 prison news­pa­pers have been pub­lished from U.S. pris­ons.” A new col­lec­tion, Amer­i­can Prison News­pa­pers: 1800–2020 — Voic­es from the Inside, “will bring togeth­er hun­dreds of these peri­od­i­cals from across the coun­try into one col­lec­tion that will rep­re­sent penal insti­tu­tions of all kinds, with spe­cial atten­tion paid to women-only insti­tu­tions.”

The U.S. incar­cer­ates “over 2 mil­lion as of 2019” — and has pro­duced some of the world’s most mov­ing jail and prison lit­er­a­ture, from Thore­au’s “Civ­il Dis­obe­di­ence” to Mar­tin Luther King, Jr.‘s “Let­ter from a Birm­ing­ham Jail.” The news­pa­pers in this col­lec­tion do not often fea­ture a sim­i­lar lev­el of lit­er­ary bravu­ra, but many show a high degree of pro­fes­sion­al­ism and artis­tic qual­i­ty. “Next to the fad­ed, home-spun pages of The Hour Glass, pub­lished at the Farm for Women in Con­necti­cut in the 1930s,” writes JSTOR Dai­ly’s Kate McQueen, “read­ers will find pol­ished sta­ples of the 1970s like news­pa­per The Ken­tucky Inter-Prison Press and Ari­zona State Pris­on’s mag­a­zine La Roca.”

Many, if not most, of these pub­li­ca­tions were pub­lished with offi­cial sanc­tion, and these “cov­er sim­i­lar ground. They report on prison pro­gram­ing, pro­file locals of inter­est, and offer com­men­tary on top­ics like parole and edu­ca­tion” under the watch­ful gaze of the war­den, whose pho­to­graph might appear on the mast­head. “Incar­cer­at­ed jour­nal­ists walk a tightrope between over­sight by admin­is­tra­tions — even cen­sor­ship — and seek­ing to report accu­rate­ly on their expe­ri­ences inside,” the col­lec­tion points out. Prison news­pa­pers gave inmates oppor­tu­ni­ties to share cre­ative work and hone new­ly acquired lit­er­a­cy, lit­er­ary, and legal skills. Those peri­od­i­cals that cir­cu­lat­ed under­ground with­out the author­i­ties’ per­mis­sion had no need to equiv­o­cate about their pol­i­tics. Wash­ing­ton State Pen­i­ten­tiary’s Anar­chist Black Drag­on, for exam­ple, took a fierce­ly rad­i­cal stance on every page. Nowhere on the mast­head will one find the names of cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers, or even a list of edi­tors and con­trib­u­tors, or even a mast­head.

Whether offi­cial, unof­fi­cial, or occu­py­ing a grey area, prison peri­od­i­cals all hoped in some degree to “poke holes in the wall,” as Tom Run­y­on, edi­tor of Iowa State Pen­i­ten­tiary’s Pre­sidio wrote — reach­ing audi­ences out­side the prison to refute crim­i­no­log­i­cal think­ing. Ari­zona State Pris­on’s The Desert Press, led its Jan­u­ary 1934 issue with the press­ing head­line “Are Con­victs Peo­ple?” (like­ly after Alice Duer Miller’s satir­i­cal 1904 “book of rhymes for suf­frage times,” Are Women Peo­ple?)  Lawrence Snow, edi­tor of Ken­tucky State Pen­i­ten­tiary’s Cas­tle on the Cum­ber­land, picked up the ques­tion with more for­mal­i­ty in a 1964 col­umn, ask­ing, “How shall [a prison pub­li­ca­tion] go about its prin­ci­pal job of con­vinc­ing the casu­al read­er that con­victs, although they have divorced them­selves tem­porar­i­ly from soci­ety, still belong to the human race?” Giv­en that the Unit­ed States impris­ons more peo­ple than any oth­er nation in the world, the ques­tion seems more per­ti­nent — urgent even — than ever before. Enter the Amer­i­can Prison News­pa­pers col­lec­tion here.

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

On the Pow­er of Teach­ing Phi­los­o­phy in Pris­ons

Pris­ons Around the U.S. Are Ban­ning and Restrict­ing Access to Books

Bertrand Russell’s Prison Let­ters Are Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online (1918 – 1961)

Pat­ti Smith Reads from Oscar Wilde’s De Pro­fundis, the Love Let­ter He Wrote From Prison (1897)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.