The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) (https://prisonwitness.org/) is an open access archive presents writings from incarcerated American’s to better understand the American prison system. By presenting their lived experiences through their writings, the archive seeks to dispel myths surrounding the incarcerated. The archive is founded by Dr. Doran Larson who is the Edward North professor of literature at Hamilton College. It began from a book that Larson worked on called ‘Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America’ for which he had collected essays from the incarcerated. The book was a major success, published with over 50 essays, but Larson discovered the deluge of essays did not stop, this prompted him to find a better way to collect and display the writings to the world, leading to the inception of the APWA.
APWA is an Internet-based, fully searchable digital archive with over 2,900 nonfiction essays, poetry and stories offering first-hand testimony to the conditions experienced by incarcerated people filled with their ideas, critiques, and hopes. The archive has a minimalist design with an excerpt taken from an essay overlaid with information on how to navigate the website. The site is simple to navigate with few menu options, and since accessibility is a priority, the archive has stated its goal to bring together public, scholars, and journalists to help them better understand the lives of those incarcerated through their writings.
The archive is noticeably clear that it presents the writings only the way the writers want it to be, some of the writings feature names, and other details while others remain anonymous respecting the writer’s wishes. The page on ‘Archival Silences‘ is particularly interesting because the archive provides transparency by acknowledging that the incarnated are working in a system that does police their words in their writings, and that their process of collecting women, and POC experiences are still ongoing. This page also welcomes readers to bring to the archive’s attention, organisations which would help them achieve this purpose. Their commitment to providing diverse perspectives is clear through the search option which gives readers the option of filtering content based on the gender, ethnicity, religious and sexual orientation of the writer, along with alphabetical and chronological options. The oldest content is from 1993, with the most recent content from over a year ago. The writing is featured on its own page with the original hand-written/type-written paper on the left side, and the transcription written on the right. By scrolling down one can click on the ‘Details’ option to learn more about the writer. The archive allows readers to save articles to the ‘Saved Collections’ to continue to interact and revisit them.
Though the site does not provide much guidance on how to approach the writings, the ‘Curated Collections’ page is particularly effortless way to ease into the archive. It features, articles classified by themes selected by students who have worked closely with the archive. There are three themes related to the breakdown of the incarcerated familial and communal relationships, and their mental health through their time in prison. I focused on a few select writings in each of the three categories to better understand how they have been placed, and to see how the editorial changes have impacted my reading.
“Prison is a poisoned environment. It leaves no one untouched. It seeps into the pores like mustard gas. It fouls the very air we breathe, polluting it with anger and hatred and bitterness. It creates unseen lesions on our souls, damages our being, eats away at our minds until we have no choice but to shut down all emotion or risk self-destruction. One cannot “care” for another in here, it is a weakness pounced upon by those who prey on misery, a liability that brings the danger of attack, physically or otherwise. To be safe is to be callous, to save one’s self is to become ruthless and aggressive. “From 452 words on incarceration by Roberts, W. E.
In ‘A Hidden Cost by Peter Mehmel‘ , the writer reveals his regret that his mistakes affected his children who could not have normal lives due to his incarceration. It is sobering to read how he considered himself a father first, and his sense of loss from meeting his children, and being a part of their lives. He feels that his life of crime, set the precedent and pulled his children down the same path. In one article on communal relationships one writer recounts how his relationship with an old friend falls apart while he builds a deeper one with his cellmate. He falls further into his prison lifestyle while finding himself increasingly disconnected with his family and friends. Overall, the curated collections work well to establish the thematic areas that they explore. They helped me get an understanding of this archive, by providing a diverse set of perspectives, and led to go back to search for the complete writings in the archive database.
The archive does use, the website format well but it could be improved upon, many of the recent articles are not transcribed. Understanding that the limited medium only handwritten/ typed text the archive works with, the site does not contain many multimedia elements. It would be beneficial if the site incorporated some of these writings in a more visual format by performing sentiment analysis, providing infographics on the American legal system, along with the various points of critique raised by the writers, and incorporate this with the database, as this would provide an easier and more informative reading experience. The only multimedia elements are present in the ‘Projects Inspired by the Archive’ page which includes a postcard, a graphic, and an essay. The archive is limited by presenting only the writings and their transcriptions with no means for the readers to further conceptualise this enormous data. The ‘FAQs & Terminology‘ page does answer basic questions related to the archive and provides a way to understand the terminology used in the writings. Though the transcriptions themselves do not have any footnotes on the terms used, prompting the reader to keep this page open. The archive could also benefit from creating separate content divisions for their various stakeholders to provide them with a better navigation experience.
The archive must be lauded for dealing with a sensitive topic with delicacy and providing a non-judgemental space for the incarcerated to share their writings. The intention of the archive is clear, and it does provide the space for the incarnated to share their lived experiences, and for readers to learn more about the American prison system and to understand their lives in prison. Most of our knowledge of the prison system comes through movies like Shawshank Redemption, shows like Orange is the New Black which though are critically acclaimed only provide a fictionalized account of the American prison system. To better understand their experiences and bring reform to the prison system, the APWA becomes crucial since it remains unflinchingly honest in its commitment to bring representation to incarcerated experiences.