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Mining the Penal Press: Investigating the Archive of Prisoner-Edited Print Culture

Sat, November 9, 8:00 to 9:45am, Hawai'i Convention Center, Mtg Rm 301 A

Session Submission Type: Paper Session: Traditional Format


Beginning in the late nineteenth century, prisons and reformatories across North America began to offer the resources necessary for imprisoned people to publish their own newspapers. What resulted was the Penal Press, a large circuit of print matter written, edited, illustrated, and often printed by imprisoned men and women at hundreds of institutions across the United States and Canada. From Sing Sing Prison’s Star of Hope in New York to Oahu Prison’s Paahao Press in Hawaiʻi to Kingston Penitentiary’s Telescope in Ontario, the Penal Press was defined most uniquely by its massive distribution across the carceral archipelago, and papers were traded between distant prisons for consumption by imprisoned readers at other institutions. This allowed for a unique communication method between prisons that is unseen today, leading to the dissemination of critical ideas and the distribution of solidarity among a group of imprisoned readers.

Critical prison studies texts such as Ethan Blue’s Doing Time in the Depression (2012) and Alison Griffiths’s Carceral Fantasies (2016) have used individual prisoner-edited newspapers to craft cultural histories of the prison. In studies such as these, the Penal Press serves as a critical and understudied archive that provides insight into the thoughts and critiques of imprisoned people, albeit fraught by administrative influence and various forms of censorship. This panel furthers these studies by analyzing the Penal Press through its production, circulation, and readership, paying special attention to the organizing and thought of imprisoned writers.

“Mining the Penal Press” observes the breathtaking size and influence of prisoner-edited journalism in the twentieth century, and its papers collectively argue that studying the Penal Press provides a look into voices that are commonly excised from prison studies scholarship. These papers look to a variety of prisoner-edited publications to unearth histories of imprisoned people as critics, theorists, and authors of their own lives and experiences. Maria Dikcis’s “In Print, Out of Bounds” examines the poetry that has populated prisoner print culture, showing how the experience of incarceration affected the formal literary qualities of these poems. In “The Paths of the Paahao Press,” Joshua Mitchell argues that discourses of settler colonialism and American nationalism were circulated to imprisoned readers through a newspaper published at Hawaiʻi’s Oʻahu Prison in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, in her paper “History from Below, History from the Inside” co-researched with Chris Clarkson, Melissa Munn focuses on the archive of the Canadian Penal Press to argue that penal journalism allowed imprisoned people to be agents of the activities occurring in the institutions in which they were detained, allowing them to comment on the activities and indignities of prison life. Together, these papers show that the Penal Press is worthy of more sustained analysis and critical inquiry, since it provides an exceptional look into the critical thought and theory of imprisoned people.

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