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The American Prison Writing Project

The American Prison Writing Project

The American Prison Writing Project ( is an ongoing process to build the “first fully searchable prison-writing archive”. The choice to create an archive of writing by prisoners rather than average citizens was not an arbitrary one, the goal of the project is to amass real, first-hand witnesses to life inside of the United States prison system.

I believe that to most people, and even admittedly to myself at times, it is easy to forget that millions of US citizens are living behind bars at this moment. Our society makes it easy to push these thoughts to the back of our minds. However, even convicted criminals are still human beings like you or me. The penal system is supposed to be meant for rehabilitation, but all too often it is simply used to keep the unwanted separate from society.  

That is why it is important that people understand what really goes on inside of our prison system. The APWA provides the information, which represents only the first step in what should be a larger dialogue. However, to do so these stories must be openly accessible. That is why transcription plays such an important role in the project.

Many prisoners have very limited access to computers, so logically it makes much more sense for them to handwrite the essays that they send in. However, even when scanned in the image is clearly not searchable. If the writing is very neat, handwriting recognition software may be of use, but is not reliable enough to automate the conversion process. So instead, transcribers are necessary to standardize the writing sent in.

People like us find individual essays, type the entire essay into a Word document, and use some standardized formatting. This poses a question: should you try to maintain the transcribed version as close as possible to the original? This includes formatting, etc. The APWA guidelines state not to transcribe unusual formatting such as bold or italics. This makes sense if you believe that the important part of the submission is the content itself. However, this is contradicted by the fact that the spelling should be maintained exactly even if it is incorrect. In any sort of transcription project certain editorial questions are posed, and certain guideline can be used to emphasize specific components of the writing. 


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