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The Incarcerated are Producing a "Shadow Canon" of Writing on Prisons and Society

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.


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 U.C.L.A., and the director of 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, who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer, as part of a new Voices of Mass Incarceration initiative.


“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.”

Read entire article at New York Times