ATG Quirkies: Introducing American Prison Newspapers, 1800-2020: Voices from the Inside

by | Sep 24, 2021 | 0 comments

Introducing American Prison Newspapers, 1800-2020: Voices from the Inside is by Kate McQueen, a writer and lecturer at University of California Santa Cruz. It appears in JSTOR Daily.

In December 1915, the men at Wyoming State Penitentiary—population 276—established a “Red Hot Rag with a Pep” called J-A-B-S. The magazine offered a bit of news and plenty of commentary, bound in a colorful cover and illustrated with a tiny jester carrying a pointy sword. Its title and avatar suggested editorial interest in sharp humor. The first issue’s opening pages, however, were conciliatory and aimed for broad appeal. J-A-B-S planned to be a “non-sectarian and non-political” publication that “will give everyone a square deal—that can stand it.” For the modest price of 500 dollars for 500 years (or an annual fee of $1.20), outside subscribers could peek into the fortress-like structure of the Rawlins prison.

How many people took the puckish editors up on this offer? The surviving copies that made their way via the University of Wyoming’s collections into Reveal Digital’s latest archival projectAmerican Prison Newspapers, 1800-2020: Voices from the Inside, tell us little about audience size. But they indicate something important about outreach. In addition to providing news by and for the incarcerated, the prison press long aspired to use its pages as a tool to “poke holes in the wall,” as Tom Runyon, editor of Iowa State Penitentiary’s Presidio put it and reach outside audiences too.

Since 1800, people incarcerated in America have penned articles and organized layouts for hundreds of in-house publications of all sizes, shapes, and lifespans. The American Prison Newspapers archive reflects this diversity. The more than 900 items (and counting) available for open access use include five issues of J-A-B-S, the oldest publication in the archive to date. It also features a near-complete print run of the more recent Long Line Writer—297 issues produced by Arkansas Department of Corrections from 1987 to 2006. Next to the faded, home-spun pages of The Hour Glass, published at the Farm for Women in Connecticut in the 1930s, readers will find polished staples of the 1970s like newspaper The Kentucky Inter-Prison Press and Arizona State Prison’s magazine La Roca. New publications will be added to the collection as they are located and digitized.

“Regardless of style, the publications cover similar ground. They report on prison programming, profile locals of interest, and offer commentary on topics like parole and education. A close look at mastheads and statements of purpose reveals similar goals, frequently packaged in a shared language. In fact, the prison press introduced itself with verve and clarity of purpose…”

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