“The U.S holds more prisoners and employs more prison staff than any other nation on earth.  But there is no central location where the public, policy makers, students or researchers can benefit from the many years of first-hand experience of prisoners and prison workers,” read the email that landed in my inbox last week.

The American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) is an in-progress, internet-based, digital archive of non-fiction essays recently established by the Digital Humanities Initiative at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.

APWA addresses a need and it could be of immeasurable value. It’s early days; the archive has yet to fill. Digital storage provides an almost limitless potential for growth. The accumulation of material is also without deadline.

Sure, there are many great places such as the PEN American Center, The Beat Within, Prison Legal News, The Angolite, San Quentin News, Prison Writing blog, where one can find expert prison writing, but how much of this is searchable by key terms? On what page of a Google search does it land? There’s so much good but untapped writing on prisons out there that to have a feasible search tool (designed by library-scientists) is very exciting.


“We seek authors who write with the authority that only first-person experience can bring,” says APWA about it’s one parameter for submissions. I think that insistence gives the project weight and legitimacy.

While the APWA is open to all styles, they encourage first hand accounts from prisoners, prison employees, and prison volunteers of life and work conditions within American prisons.

Often prisoners and prison employees are in opposition, but with submissions from both groups who knows what cross-pollination of perspectives might emerge?

From here, I’ll leave you with APWA’s own description of the project:

All topics are of interest, including descriptions of sources of stress, ways of coping, health care, causes of violence and ways to reduce violence, material conditions, education, employment conditions and the challenges these conditions present, the environment for volunteers, the aging prison population, visions of a better way to operate (personally, politically, institutionally, etc.), reflections on the work of dealing with time inside (for workers as well as prisoners), the challenges of physical and psychological survival, public perception and popular depictions of prisoners and prison workers, the politics and economics of mass incarceration, what works and why it works, and what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work (i.e. practical views on reform), etc.  We are open to any testimony about the issues that matter to prison staff, administrators, corrections officers, teachers, volunteers, and prisoners.

We value writing that takes thoughtful, constructive positions even on passionately felt ideas.

The APWA is intended for researchers and for the general public, to help them understand American prison conditions and the prison’s practical effects and place in society. All the work in the APWA will be accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the Internet. The APWA will open the American prison to public observation, and showcase the thinking and writing being produced inside.

Once included in the APWA, work will be retained indefinitely. Contributors can write under pseudonyms or anonymously. We reserve the right to edit or reject work that advocates violence, names names in ongoing legal cases, or libels named individuals. The APWA is not currently accepting poetry or fiction.

We accept art (on a single 8.5×11 page) only if accompanied by an essay. A signed permission sheet must be included to post work on the APWA.  By signing on the signature line below, you are granting us permission to include your work in the APWA. The questionnaire information will be used to offer researchers points of reference (for example, to study the specific concerns of staff who are veterans, or of Black and Latino men in maximum-security facilities).

There is no deadline. We seek the widest possible gathering of American prison writing, and we will read, scan, and transcribe essays into the APWA on a continuing basis. Previously published work is acceptable if authors retain copyright. Please let us know where and when your essay appeared in print.

Non-fiction essays, based on first-hand experience, should be limited to 5,000 words (15 double-spaced pages).  Clearly hand-written pages are welcome.  We charge no fees.  We will read all writing submitted.

There is a PDF form to submit with your essay. It includes the usual stuff — name, age, address, date, prison facility. It also includes an optional questionnaire to help the archivists digitally tag and organise essays.

Please share the project, the link, and the address below far and wide.

Mail essays to: APWA, 198 College Hill Road, Clinton, NY 13323.