For the American Prison Writing Archive, a ‘Shadow Canon’ Sheds Light

At an age when his peers were getting driver’s licenses and thinking about college, Jose Di Lenola, then 17, was behind bars in one of New York State’s most violent prisons, earning “a master’s degree in Prison Survival,” as he put it. He learned how to wield a metal can lid as a weapon and fashion a protective vest out of magazine covers taped to his torso.

In “I Swerve, Pursued,” his essay about the 26 years he served in prison for killing a high school classmate during a burglary, Di Lenola describes his indoctrination the first week: “While waiting in line to go to dinner, I saw a prisoner stabbed four times, his lung punctured twice. The next day in the yard, while sitting on the concrete bleachers, a guy came and sat near me. At first I didn’t notice anything amiss, until he turned his head. From temple to lips, a jagged rip spewed blood down his neck and shirt; he’d been cut with a can lid.”

He added, “The first lesson you learn in prison is to mind your own business.”

Di Lenola’s work is one of more than 3,300 first-person narratives that make up the American Prison Writing Archive, the country’s most extensive digital repository of writings about life and conditions inside some 400 correctional facilities in 47 states. Earlier this month, the archive transferred from its original home at Hamilton College to the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. Buoyed by a $2.3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, the archive plans to increase the number of digitized first-person accounts to more than 10,000, start a book series, launch exhibitions and create a kind of digital umbrella linking to kindred open-access efforts like the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing program and the Reveal Digital American Prison Newspaper collection.

The sheer volume of work “can feel like beans in a jar,” said Vesla Mae Weaver, the archive’s co-director and a professor of political science and sociology at Johns Hopkins. “But when you go through them one by one by one, they raise complex and genuine questions like ‘What is the meaning of punishment?’ and ‘What is freedom?’”

The archive evolved out of a writing class taught for 11 years by Doran Larson, a Hamilton literature and creative writing professor, at the Attica Correctional Facility, best known for the bloody 1971 prison revolt in which New York State Police killed 39 prisoners and 10 state employees and seriously wounded scores of others. It didn’t take Larson long to realize that, in writing honestly about what they were witnessing and experiencing inside, his students were “producing documents that the world really needed to see,” he said.

Among them was Di Lenola, now 44. “It creates an awareness of everyday life for those who haven’t experienced incarceration,” Di Lenola said of the archive. “It provides an opportunity for conversations to start.”

The archive’s founding premise is that incarcerated people themselves are experts on the human costs of legal confinement, including the impact on families. (About 2.6 million children in the United States currently have a parent who is incarcerated.) Their first-person writing represents “a shadow canon,” said Larson, the archive’s founder who teaches several classes on prison writing at Hamilton and is the chair of the college’s American Studies program.

The organizers hope that increased visibility of these testimonies will serve as a road map for policy reforms, and encourage lawmakers, scholars, journalists and others to incorporate these primary sources in analyses of the criminal justice system. It can also further transparency of opaque institutions by highlighting discrepancies between official accounts and firsthand observations.

The archive’s writings probe the challenges the incarcerated face in wrenchingly personal terms, whether it’s a mother separated from her 12-year-old or the isolation of solitary confinement and its effect on mental health. In “My Black Sister and Her Blue Uniform,” T. Lamont Baker writes about the sense of betrayal and humiliation he felt as a Black inmate when a formerly close female friend becomes a cold and aloof corrections officer.

Marc Mauer, a senior adviser to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, said that a key element in why the U.S. continues to be a world leader in mass incarceration has been the “dehumanization of people who have been convicted of crimes.”

The archive, he added, “plays a critical role in countering stereotypes and challenging the social structure in which incarcerated individuals are enmeshed.”

Although plans to accept electronic submissions are in the works, so far the project has been decidedly analog, starting with snail mail correspondence between potential essayists and a cadre of Hamilton student volunteers.

The archive includes scans of original documents, half in painstaking longhand and some with drawings and doodles, to give a sense of “the conditions under which people are writing,” Larson said. Some are pounded out on clear plastic typewriters that allow for the checking of contraband. In an essay about his time in the Special Housing Unit (a.k.a. “the Hole”), Robert W. Leisure describes writing “with the floppy flimsy innards of a caseless pen that wiggles worse than some suppers” (caseless, he points out, so men “have nothing with which to stab others”).

During his time at Attica, Larson put out a call for essays that resulted in the book “Fourth City: Essays From The Prison in America,” published in 2013. But somewhat to his surprise, the essays just kept coming, jump started by notices in the monthly Prison Legal News. “I didn’t plan it,” he said. “It was the will and courage of incarcerated people to tell their story that created the archive.” (His new book, “Inside Knowledge: Incarcerated People on the Failures of the American Prison,” is expected early next year.)

The literary foundation upon which the Archive rests runs deep. It begins over 200 years ago with early writers like Patrick Lynn, who in 1799 described forced confessions, sexual abuse and starvation and extends to pivotal works like the “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), which chronicles the his conversion to Islam while in prison, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” written to fellow clergymen in April 1963.

Max Felker-Kantor, an assistant history professor at Ball State University who teaches “Mass Incarceration in Historical Perspective,” said there has been a wave of interest in archival sources related to prison and policing among young scholars who were in graduate school at the time Black Lives Matter emerged.

Among the archival projects is Million Dollar Hoods at the University of California Los Angeles, which won access to about 200 boxes of Los Angeles Police Department records from the late 1970s to the early 2000s with an assist from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The documents encompass issues like the war on drugs and police shootings, said Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the its Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies.

Last year, Brown University acquired the extensive personal archive of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the author and former Black Panther leader, as part of a new Voices of Mass Incarceration initiative.

And at the University of Michigan, the Carceral State Project is documenting and archiving prison conditions and uprisings, police violence, immigration raids and detentions and other issues from 1960 to the present.

“Millions of people have endured this crisis of mass incarceration first hand since the 1970s and it is our duty to reckon with their voices of what this has really meant for them and their loved ones,” said Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history and African American Studies at the University of Michigan and the author of “Blood In the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” “By collecting and making possible their letters, their testimonies and their art, there will also be an indelible record for all future generations to reckon with as well.”

A prime goal for American Prison Writing Archive is to fill in the gaps of places and populations that are underrepresented in the archive — states like Louisiana and Hawaii, people who are trans and gender-nonconforming, Spanish speakers in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and prison staff and volunteers.

The poet, writer and scholar Elizabeth Alexander, the president of the Mellon Foundation, considers the philanthropic firepower being directed at such projects long overdue. “The system and its maladies affect us all,” she said. “These human experiences of people who are incarcerated and system impacted have been under-told and underrecognized.”

Randall Horton, a poet and one of the archive’s four formerly incarcerated board members, observed: “Reading taught me how to write, and writing taught me how to get in touch with my inner self,” he said. “I was a young person at the time, and it helped me deal with adversity and develop a moral compass.” Today he is an English professor at the University of New Haven.

Kenneth E. Hartman, an accomplished writer and board member now living in California as advocacy director for the nonprofit Transformative In-Prison Workgroup, spent 38 years dealing with lockdowns, loudspeakers and subpar meals in the cacophonous chow hall. ”Prisoners know what goes on in prisons better than anyone else,” he writes in “The Trouble With Prison Reformers.” “We know how this world of ours works. We know what needs to be done.”

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