Blog Post

Thoughts on the American Prison Writing Archive

Image of silhouetted person writing in prison cell.

            Working on a transcription for the American Prison Writing Archive was a very enlightening experience. To be completely honest, I at first questioned why this project existed and was uncomfortable with the idea of not only reading the thoughts of prisoners, but of helping them get their writing out to the public. I struggled to understand why the people who work on this project are so passionate on the issue, and why we were to engage with and offer assistance to members of society that had committed serious crimes.

            Ironically enough, the document I ended up choosing both revealed that I harbored this bias and served to eradicate it. The piece was written by Lisa Guenther, a Vanderbilt professor who taught philosophy to a group of grad students and inmates on death row. She does a beautiful job of humanizing her imprisoned students, including poignant details such as “when they don’t have access to standard art supplies, they become even more creative, using toilet paper or white bread to create papier-mache sculptures, or scraping the pigment from M&Ms or Skittles to use as paint.” She wishes to expose the irony that the prisoner condemned to death is in “a position where self-transformation is both demanded of him and refused to him.” And she further emphasizes that these condemned prisoners exist in large part to exist as single bodies of evil to be flushed from the world so that the fears of the general public can be assuaged.

            This narrative resonated deeply with me, but also made me feel guilty about choosing this document to transcribe in the first place. I think I likely gravitated toward this piece because it was not written by an actual prisoner, and so I was able to keep my distance from these ostracized members of society. But since being introduced to this lesson, I have realized how deeply serious of a matter it is.

            Every morning I like to look through the stories on Yahoo!, and there is almost always a story about some gruesome case accompanied by the suspect’s mugshot right smack dab in the center of the site. I feel as if the number of these types of stories has skyrocketed in recent years, and I think it is in part because the media is trying to cater to this American attitude toward crime. I find it interesting that we are often shown the face of the criminal rather than that of the victim. That may have to do with the issues Guenther writes about, particularly the idea that Americans like to see who is getting locked up so that they can “fall asleep at night knowing that our families are safe.”

            Overall, I think the APWA is a successful example of digital activism. Its purpose is clear and defined, and it seeks to enact real social change by forcing people to question their preconceived notions of prisoners as they come face to face with their writing. This is in contrast to the project I am writing my essay on, which I am struggling to view as a true digital humanities initiative, as it seems focused more on preservation and archive than on getting people to change their perceptions or take a certain course of action. I am wondering then if explicitly advocating for a particular stance on an issue or encouraging a particular course of action is a necessary condition of activism, or if it is enough for a project to simply exist in relation to larger social issues.


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