Resource Radar: American Prison Newspapers, 1800-2020

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

I have so much to write about, but I’ll have to start with a fascinating JSTOR webinar I attended about a project to digitize American prison newspapers. The project is led by Reveal Digital, which has been part of ITHAKA since 2012. Their mission is to publish Open Access primary sources from historically excluded groups. Currently, the prison newspaper project is about 45 percent funded, and as the collection is being digitized, only those libraries who have contributed to the fund can access the content via JSTOR. Once the project is fully funded, it will be open access!

Merced College offers courses to students who are incarcerated. These classes are taught in person, but, because of COVID-19, they are correspondence courses this semester. I think this will be a particularly exciting collection for our faculty who teach in the surrounding state prisons and those who teach about mass incarceration on campus.

(If you’re an academic librarian, you may also be interested in the Merced College Library’s correspondence reference service for these students. My colleague Karrie Bullock serves as the lead for this service. It was partially modeled after San Francisco Public Library’s prison reference service. Karrie and I attended a presentation led by SFPL librarians Jeanie Austin and Rachel Kinnon and intern Rosa Hall called “What If Patrons Can’t Access the Internet?: Reference by Mail for Patrons Who Are Incarcerated” during the CLA Conference in 2019, and she got lots of great ideas from the session.)

During the JSTOR webinar I attended, which I discovered was the last of a three-part series, I also learned about the Prison Journalism Project (PJP), which provides an online platform and journalism education to help”incarcerated and incarceration-impacted writers tell stories about their communities.” The original vision was to establish journalism education programs in prisons, but when COVID-19 hit, the founders began an online publication on Medium asking for submissions from those in prison. With the help of the American Prison Writing Archive, they received a substantial number of submissions on a variety of topics. In April, the Prison Journalism Project migrated to their own website where they publish writing and artwork by prisoners, formerly incarcerated people, and friends and family who have been impacted by incarceration.

The organization offers submission guidelines, FAQs, writing prompts, and handouts to guide writers. While these are available online, physical copies are also sent to prisons. Submissions can be emailed or sent through JPay or through the US mail. Stories are scanned and then transcribed and edited by volunteers. (The PJP is currently seeking volunteers to help transcribe or edit stories!) PJP publishes about 10 stories a week. Writers retain copyright of their work, and every writer also gets a portfolio page. On the website, stories are tagged by state and topics. The co-founders are also working to develop a toolkit for educators, which will include a textbook in comic book format.

I also learned about the San Quentin News and the podcast Ear Hustle in this webinar. One of the co-hosts of the podcast is actually inside San Quentin. I had never heard of either of these before, but I’m glad to have more resources to learn from those who are incarcerated or were formerly incarcerated. These resources are also potentially very valuable for reference work!

You can find all three of the JSTOR webinar recordings related to the American Prison Newspaper project below. I will need to watch the others soon.

You do have to share your name and email to watch the recordings.

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