Writing behind bars: browse 220 years' worth of prison newspapers
Hundreds of prison newspapers have just been uploaded to the internet. They offer a compelling insight into life behind bars—and the human need to make stuff out of paper and ink.
The first prison newspaper was published in New York City in 1800. Titled Forlorn Hope, it offered an on-the-ground account of prison life, furnishing its readers—other prisoners, for the most part—with information on the penitentiary’s comings and goings, and commentary on what life was like for an incarcerated person in that part of the world at that time in history.
Flash forward 220-odd years and Forlorn Hope’s influence can be seen in the 450-plus newspapers that have since been published across the US, many of which have now been collated and made available online by the curators at JSTOR.
Titled American Prison Newspapers: 1800-2020 – Voices from the Inside, the collection depicts and reports on “all manner of life within the walls of prisons, from the quotidian to the upsetting.”
“Incarcerated journalists walk a tightrope between oversight by administration,” the collection's curators point out, “and seeking to report accurately on their experiences inside. Some publications were produced with the sanction of institutional authorities; others were produced underground.”
The JSTOR collection is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it serves to amplify the voices of society’s most voiceless. Incarcerated people are rarely permitted to speak with the public, though it’s clear, looking at the sheer volume of works archived in this collection, that they’ve always had much to say.
A standard prison newspaper might report on “prison programing, profile locals of interest, and offer commentary on topics like parole and education”, while more radical titles, like Washington State Penitentiary’s Anarchist Black Dragon, took a more anarchist route, offering political views on incarceration and the notion of redemption, as well as practical advice on how to survive prison without losing your dignity.
It’s easy to read the collection from a political angle; with the US incarcerating more people than anywhere else on the planet, its prison newspapers represent a significant contribution to our collective media history. But the papers remain enthralling even when viewed outside of this context, existing, as they do, at the nexus of old-fashioned bootleather journalism and the more pure artistic pursuits modern readers might associate with zines. The papers allowed incarcerated people to express themselves while simultaneously honing their literary, legal and artistic skills.
Of course, even this reading isn’t entirely devoid of politics: by highlighting the humanity of its contributors, the papers serve to remind the world that incarcerated people are still that—people.
Development of the collection began in 2020 and will continue to be updated in 2022, with new content added regularly. You can see the entire American Prison Newspapers collection here.