The American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College

Access, collaboration, and prisons – three words one is unlikely to see in the same context. Yet the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) works collaboratively to provide access to the witness borne by people in prison today. Directed by Doran Larson, Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing at Hamilton College, the APWA is a continually growing online archive of essays written by incarcerated people and prison workers. The APWA provides access to the lived experiences of those inside these closed systems. These essays unveil the prisons we have constructed. We expect them to mete out justice. What we find in each essay is something much less noble.

Reading any single essay is a powerful experience; reading across essays offers the outlines and interiors of a city just smaller than Chicago.

While emerging from the American archipelago of over 6,000 carceral institutions, the cityscape we discover is as cohesive as that of our Chicago, LA, or New York. But this is a city dedicated to the production of pain. (See Larson’s Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, and his MOOC on the history of prison writing in the US.)

PI Larson working with student researchers.
PI D. Larson working with student researchers.

Larson began working with the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) at Hamilton College to develop an online, open access archive of prison essays in 2010. In December 2017, the APWA reached two important milestones: 1) over 1000 essays are now online; and 2) a transcription tool was developed to crowdsource transcription of the primarily handwritten essays. The transcription tool increased the ability of transcribers anywhere to request an account and contribute to transcriptions that allow full text searching of the archive. With over twenty new essay submissions and associated signed permission questionnaires per month, the APWA team has focused on processing submissions, correspondence, digitization, and metadata entry. Volunteer transcribers continue the practice of collaboration that fuels every aspect of the APWA. The NEH grant Larson received this past year contributed to the development of this transcription tool and also supports an administrative assistant working for the archive. Collaboration is woven into all of the work of this archive: from Larson’s work within and across institutions to maintain prison writing programs, to the team ethos of the DHi Collection Development Team in developing and sustaining the growing archive, to the research of undergraduate students, faculty and graduate students who can use the archive from other institutions.

The essays in the American Prison Writing Archive are an ever-growing resource for courses and research.The APWA has intrigued and attracted student researchers at Hamilton since its inception. Will Rasenberger ‘19 (DHi CLASS Fellow), Clara Cho ‘20, and Florence Zhan ‘20 are currently working as collaborative researchers. Yale undergraduate Patrick Doolittle used the APWA as the basis for his political science thesis, “The Zo”: Disorientation and Retaliatory Disorientation in American Prisons, Political Science.” Several Hamilton courses include assignments that use the faceted searching in APWA to view information through multiple disciplinary lenses. In a recent example, Larson co-led a two week field study course on criminal justice system practices in Sweden; students now working on an assessment of mental-health courts in Central New York are drawing from the APWA to understand what incarcerated people have say about mental-health treatment inside. Among other faculty who have drawn on the archive for classroom assignments, Boise State University’s Carrie Seymour includes transcribing essays for APWA in her class “Civic and Ethical Foundations.”   APWA Director Doran Larson and DHi Director Janet Simons invite LACOL members to contact us with questions about how your teaching and research might include APWA access and collaboration in better understanding the mass-scale prison today.