The American Prison Writing Archive

Duygu Erbil
Illustrations: Ken Krimstein
May 14, 2020

The fifth piece in our Polity of Literature series:

In prison, writing takes on new forms and new urgencies. Prisoners who never wrote before, or wrote very little, produce new work in innovative ways, writing their ways around the limits and prohibitions that prisons impose. Duygu Erbil, a scholar in the Remembering Activism (ReAct) program at Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, found an online resource that lets those outside of prison become readers of the remarkable work produced inside. The American Prison Writing Archive holds more than 2,000 texts (part of what scholar Margaret Cohen called “the great unread”) and includes facsimile scans of every original—a crucial inclusion that brings the fuller meanings of prisoner writing to view by showing us the styles in which they wrote, the drawings and visual embellishments that expand the writers’ expressions of selfhood. In her essay, Erbil considers the political space that opens up when prison writers meet readers, inside and outside the walls, freed from the filter of publishing gate-keepers. (The report is illustrated by Ken Krimstein.)


For many years it’s been a rite of passage for Turkish writers, especially poets, to spend time in prison. And, recently, the class of educators and academics of which I’m a part has become the target of similarly political threats of arrest and imprisonment. Prison life is as central a part of Turkish culture as it is of American culture. So, when my graduate studies in comparative literature led me to write a thesis, I felt called upon to lend an ear to the testimonies of the incarcerated. I wasn’t interested in the canon of prison writing, per se, a large body of books authored by writers who found themselves in prison and wrote about it. I was more interested in the writing of prisoners who weren’t writers, until prison made them be.

Illustration of the door of a prison cell, with the bars replaced by writing utensils.

Few publications for this existed before the 1970s when PEN America started a prison writing program, responding to a reconsidered public attitude toward prisoners. The social turmoil of the 1960s and early ’70s, and a civil rights movement that recognized “marginalized” voices, politicized prison culture and amplified prisoners’ voices. American prisons became a visible site of political contestation, and a new field of literary production was set in the heart of collective dissent. In California, activists helped inmates at the Soledad Prison smuggle out a “kite” of their poetry, drawings and essays, and it was commercially published as a book by The Crossing Press, poet Audre Lord’s publisher at the time. In New York, PEN America initiated a conversation between prisons and literary organizations by providing a free copy of The Handbook for Writers in Prison to teach skills, a writing contest to encourage prisoners to write by awarding cash prizes, and a mentorship program for the winners of the PEN Prison Writing awards. Bell Gale Chevigny, the editor of Doing Time: 25 Years of Prison Writing, explains that the emerging literary field within American prisons coincided with a union fight for prison reform, resulting in the flourishing of cultural and educational programs, “a prison renaissance” in the words of prison poet, William Aberg.

What’s usually included in “prison literature” are works by canonical authors who find themselves in prison. Max Nelson, an author for The Paris Review, includes Jean Genet, Oscar Wilde, and Dostoyevsky in his series on prison literature. The definitional structure of the genre differs according to the different historical lineages you look at. In her 2014 book, Reading Prisoners: Literature, Literacy, and the Transformation of American Punishment, 1700–1845, for instance, scholar Jodi Schorb offers a historical narrative of the emergence of a separate “prison literature” by tracing late 18th-century colonial American ‘‘execution narratives’’ as a popular genre, alongside the public interest in death-row confessions. We see a contemporary expression of this literary tradition in American neo-confessional narratives by former prisoners like Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison, circulating in a literary market that makes space for confessing prisoners. The broad popularity of the prisoner-redemption narratives (Senghor’s book became a New York Times bestseller, member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100 and one of the World Economic Forum’s “Most Recommended Books of 2016”), is a testament to the way the outside market defines a genre of “prison literature”—by prioritizing individual redemption and ignoring the temporal and social scales of state violence.

While prisoners’ life narratives became important evidence of state violence in the 1970s, the commercial circulation of prison writing was still bound by established literary tastes. The abundance of radical prison-thought produced by incarcerated intellectuals and activists that found its way into print in the 1970s (and the legacy of the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971) triggered an echo in academic work about prison writing. Professor of ethnic studies Dylan Rodríguez conceptualizes the cultural production by imprisoned intellectuals such as Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, and, later, Mumia Abu-Jamal as a “social movement” in his Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime. Similarly, professor of history Lee Bernstein explores the “prison art renaissance” in America is the Prison: Arts and Politics in Prison in the 1970s. Bernstein explains that the decrease in prison education programs during the 1980s and ’90s, with the introduction of supermax prisons and the “war on crime,” slowed down cultural production in prisons. However, he notes that there are still artists, writers, scholars and activists who maintain the legacy of the ‘70s social movement. This legacy is manifest mostly through anthologies and other edited collections of first-hand testimony, where an author’s name or marketability are less important to the publisher because political urgency underlies their choice to publish.

Excerpt from Ajamu Watu's prison writing

Ajamu Watu; “Thank you all for allowing me” [excerpt]; American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2014.

As Doran Larson, a professor of creative writing at Hamilton College explains, the chance for prisoners to be published is limited by the “fixed taste in and expectations of prison writing,” which situate prisoners as “unpaid journalists and documentarians of the institutional abuses of the right” (from “Prison Industrial Literary Complex,” in The Minnesota Review, Spring 2008). There are specialist publishers that will publish and sell prison memoirs by “common” inmates, but their audience is limited. For the most part, only fellow prisoners read these books, which they can find listed in inmate bookstores like SureShot Books under the category “Inmate Authors” or other prison-specific genres like “Street Life” or “Prison Life.” Prisons are mostly autonomous sites of literature—and not only because of the restricted access to books in prisons. The divide between the outside and the inside also restricts what we on the outside can read from the inside. For most of us, real day-to-day prison writing remains largely invisible.

In an important way, the creation of the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) was an intervention in this process. In 2009, Doran Larson put out a call for essays, asking incarcerated Americans to document their experiences in prison. The call was circulated in prison newsletters and on prisoner-support websites, and gathered an initial pool of 154 first-person accounts, from which Larson selected 71 essays for his 2014 collection Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. After the deadline had passed in 2012, submissions never stopped arriving. So, with the help of the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, Larson built an online repository—the APWA–which currently holds a “great unread” of 2,340 essays from more than 900 prisoners across the United States. Larson relinquished his editorial privilege (which he imposed in the selection process for Fourth City) to create an unbounded and non-hierarchical archive of prison writing.

My first question for the archive concerned how testimony to the socio-political crisis of mass incarceration could emerge from a system that separated its victims from society—and justified this in legal and moral frameworks. In particular, I was interested in the solitary confinement cell, the prison within the prison, as a site of literary production. Described as “a second sentence” by many prison writers, solitary confinement perfects and exposes the structural logic of all punitive confinement. The cell itself is an attack on the inmates’ meaning-making capacities, by means of sensory deprivation and exclusion from the social interactions that constitute a subject. Among others, prison studies scholar Lisa Guenther has eloquently analyzed this ontological violence, and the relationship between the “prison industrial complex” and the legacy of slavery, in Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. Placed in solitary confinement, how can a prisoner—rendered “unreliable narrator” par excellence—bear witness and testify to their life under incarceration? How can isolated prisoners mediate intersubjective truth-claims when they are deprived of their own identity and a socially constructed personhood?

With these questions in mind, my quest for a witness in the APWA started with a search for “solitary confinement” under the “gender identity” category of “trans,” with the knowledge that solitary confinement cells are often allocated to transgendered prisoners under the guise of ensuring “their own safety.” The Archive is searchable thanks to its use of a “content migration” model (that is to say, the migration of words and punctuation into the digital realm is enabled by freeing the original text from its material context—how it was put down on paper, or any other non-digital media). Even though the prison-born texts are adapted to suit the norms of digital platforms, the Archive also preserves and offers the scanned copies of the original, physical texts. My search results identified a single open letter, titled, “Beth in Florida: Letter addressed to Harvard Solitary Confinement Panel.” Its author, Jennifer “BabyGirl” Gann, was a transgender woman prisoner in a men’s prison, and she began the letter by addressing the audience with a sunny, “Greetings from California!”, before asserting that “long-term isolation in prison ‘control units’, under severe conditions, is TORTURE!” She employed an academic format, using footnotes combined with legal citations and medical discourse (drawn from “the expert testimony” of Dr. Stuart Grassian, a widely quoted psychiatrist specializing in the psychopathology of solitary confinement).

Two pages from Jennifer Gann's prison writing.

Jennifer Gann; “Beth in Florida: Letter Addressed to Harvard Solitary Confinement Panel;” American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2017, pp. 29–30.

The most striking element of the letter was not its academic formality, but the fact that the written commentary was followed by a number of fascinating, queer visual embellishments. In her appeal, Gann included a scanned copy of a page from her notebooks, decorated with skulls and bows, urging “sisters in women’s prisons” to join Black & Pink, an advocacy network for LGBTQ prisoners. It was followed by a queer drawing from Nicky Riley, another prisoner, who provided her own mailing address. Gann structured her own “writing” with self-styled visual additions that extended her subjectivity beyond the restrictive identity of “prisoner.” She made visible her transgender identity, as well as the material presence of feminist and LGBTQ activism and solidarity in prisons. To my knowledge, neither the letter nor the material inscriptions ever made it into a published collection of prison writings structured by the tastes and hierarchies of professional publishing. Yet, accessed in the APWA’s online repository, they revealed crucial dimensions of prisoner subjectivity and materiality.

Larson himself has identified the importance of visualization in prison writing: “The physical bodies of prison-composed texts bear witness to the conditions that the reader seeks to understand.” Indeed, texts like Gann’s expose the conditions of prisons in which there is limited access to other writing technologies. They also enable us to bear witness to the presences of the prisoner—the presence of a hand writing the letter, the presence of a testifying body, the presence of social personhood. Although separated from the rest of the world, prison writers put pen on paper, inscribing their existence and taking up a position in the “space of appearance” through the embodied act of writing.

Gann’s writing is not only an ordering of letters and punctuation. The handwritten pages, with their feminine punk aesthetic, express the singularity of Gann’s social persona. Her valedictory, “Women and Queers Unite!” and her closing “Your sister in struggle,” together with her signature (including her nickname “BabyGirl,” her activist affiliation “Black & Pink – Leadership Circle,” and interlocking female symbols referring to the lesbian community) invites others from an oppressed public of women and LGBTQ prisoners to also become public. Riley’s drawing further makes visible non-normative women: it depicts three women, drawn like superheroes, who are introducing themselves in a graphic narrative, stating “I’m Trans Beautiful Dark & Lovely,” “I’m Bisexy Hot & Spicy,” “I’m… Lesbo Fierce! ‘Girl Power,'” followed by a collective statement: “IM EVERY WOMAN, Today… Tomorrow… All the time. Becuz, No one can claim your Gender for you!” The combination of these different textual modalities—the linguistic and visual—conditions the possibility of self-presentation for the prison writer, beyond the reductive and oppressive position of simply being a prisoner.

Excerpt from Diallo Bomani's "A da in the SHU"

Diallo Bomani; “A da in the SHU;” American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2016.

As a researcher, I found the Archive’s searchable database structure invaluable, yet it was also limited by the conventions of digital data-migration. Only after I stopped searching for keywords and stopped reading the digital transcriptions of the letters did I begin to see how crucial material forms of visuality are to the representation of subjecthood for prisoners. For example, another letter in the archive, “A da in the SHU” by Diallo Bomani (whose birth name is Charles James), ends with two signatures, an official printed signature on the right and a pseudo-signature on the left, in the form of a graffiti tag. Using graffiti in this context is a type of multimodal self-presentation—Bomani inscribes his prison text by juxtaposing his street persona with his official signature and prisoner number. He thus presents a richer subjecthood, testifying that he is more than a prisoner reduced to a number, yet simultaneously he indicates the fact of his oppression. Another example of prisoner aesthetics in the APWA is “A page from the cage” by Twisted Tex. Written in an indecipherable tattoo script, Twisted Tex chose to perform an intersection of street and prison subcultures at the cost of legibility. Jimmy Williamson’s hand-made cover for “Rediscovering humanity’s voice through the walls of darkness,” on the other hand, has a pink heart embellishing a prison-born text, transgressing the stereotypical hyper-masculinity of prisoners. The resources of the APWA shows the myriad ways that prisoners construct social personhood and a sense of self through visuality.

An excerpt from Jeremy P. Gallant's prison writing.

Twisted Tex; “A page from the cage;” American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2016.

Drawing resembling a stained glass window with text inside a heart that reads "Humanitys love. Collective human one-ness. Free. Spirituality. Soul connections."

Jimmy Williamson; “Rediscovering humanity’s voice through the walls of darkness;” American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2010.

Other examples from the APWA show that the visual trace is not only left by self-styling prisoners. In the Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU), in Cell Block D (reserved for long-term SHU prisoners), the jailers stamp every page, in red, with the name of the prison, the cell block, and the unit number. Joe Delores Mendez’s piece “I sit. I stand,” sent from Unit D-10, is one of those documents marked by the prison authorities, including the trace of its location, which also indicates the prisoner’s immediate situation. Mendez’s writing nevertheless conveys his own unique personhood, because it is written in an eerily neat hand in uppercase letters with exaggerated paragraph indentations that are appealing to the eye. From his SHU cell, in one of the most notorious prisons in the United States, Mendez bears witness to solitary confinement, the mechanization of the human body, the metamorphosis into an automaton. His writing calls for our empathy through his elegant use of simile:

I sit. I stand. Walk a few feet, and then sit back down again. I do things to try to stay busy, read, write, study, etc, etc… things to stimulate the mind. I exercise, too. [. . .] But, for the most part I sit like an old automobil part that someone abandoned on a field or a yard that is slowly and painfully rusting away. It sits through the rain, the cold. It sees the brightness of the sun but. Never feels it’s warmth. [sic]

Despite the mark of the SHU stamp, Mendez’s voice as an author emerges via the tactile visuality of his handwriting. On the one hand, he’s a literary witness, carefully structuring a story; and on the other, he is the mechanical scrivener automatized by his cell.

Excerpt from Joe Delores Mendez’s prison writing.

Joe Delores Mendez; “I Sit. I Stand.American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), nd.

In stark aesthetic contrast with Mendez’s writing, there is Ajamu Watu’s “Revolutionary greetings!”, handwritten on a yellow legal pad, which strikes the eye as the left margin drifts toward the right. The tactility of this drifting (it is felt as much as seen) and Watu’s reverse italic script present the trace of the body of a left-handed person, a human being. His greeting addresses Doran Larson, the archive, and me, as the reader. Watu bears witness to his 22 years in solitary confinement as a Black prisoner, to the racial dynamics of mass incarceration, and to the supermax prison. He explains the social dynamics in California, linking racist oppression outside and inside prisons to the societal conditions for Black people’s experience of incarceration. He testifies that solitary confinement is a racist institutional device that isolates political prisoners by calling them “gang members.” In his serial letter-writing, composed of three texts, Watu manifests the importance of Black historical consciousness, as well as standing “in solidarity with those of other ethnicities in this same struggle.”

Excerpt from Ajamu Watus prison writing.

Ajamu Watu; “Revolutionary Greetings!American Prison Writing Archive, The Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi), 2014.

Watu testifies to both the FBI’s violent acts against the civil rights movement (which included the incarceration of activists) and the contemporary “fascists” who do not allow prisoners to read “Afrikkkan literature Hispanic, Native Amerikkkan and other Marxist/Leninist/Maoist works.” He configures the prison as a site of political contestation and puts the right to read at the core of this struggle—a right for which the “revolutionaries” fought with three hunger strikes. As I look at Watu’s drifting writing, his positioning of reading as a right, his fight for it through hunger strikes, I see the trace of his body weaponized to claim his right to read. It burdens me with the responsibility to defend his and others’ freedom, by decolonizing and decarcerating my own act of reading. Decarcerating means that I free my own readings from the narrow rules delimiting “literature” on the outside.

One of the ways that the dehumanization of prisoners occurs is by assuming that they do not have an aesthetic culture, that they don’t have a position to take up in the artistic field, because their literary production does not resemble institutional cultural production in the outside world. Prison writing is excluded from what is marketed as “literature” not only because of material isolation, but also because carceral textual cultures are not in accordance with the presumptions of the outside world. Especially in solitary confinement, letter-writing is the only form of transaction, even within the prison. Prisoners communicate with inmates in other solitary cells or in the general population via contraband letters called “kites.” Also, prisoners make zines, not books; they author multimodal letters, not autobiographies. These forms circulate more freely in and out of prisons because they can slip through the fingers of prison authorities. Inclusive repositories like the APWA, with its embrace of the plurality of these unconventional forms, take a crucial first step toward bringing the subjective experiences of common prisoners into the lives of non-prisoners. Decarceration at the level of the text, and as a reading practice, starts by learning to read these forms of writing without reshaping them to fit our expectations.Illustration of a prisoner surrounded by barbed wire holding up a book that reads: "I sit. I stand."


The American Prison Writing Archive can be used by prisoners wishing to upload their texts and by readers who’d like to browse, download, and read.

Duygu Erbil

Duygu Erbil

Duygu Erbil is a PhD candidate in the ReAct (Remembering Activism: The Cultural Memory of Protest in Europe) project at Utrecht University. While completing an RMA in Comparative Literary Studies at Utrecht University, she focused on the interplay between carceral textual cultures and the mediation of prison testimony in solitary confinement in the United States.

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