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May 20, 2024

Students present research based on the American Prison Writing Archive

By LONDON CRADDOCK | October 11, 2022



Three undergraduate students present their year-long research projects based on the American Prison Writing Archive.

The Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship hosted a panel discussion titled “Living in Prison: Insights from the American Prison Writing Archive” on Oct. 6. The event discussed the research of three Hopkins undergraduates based on the American Prison Writing Archive, a digital collection of over 3,300 essays by incarcerated people.

Doran Larson, the founder of the archive and a professor of literature and creative writing at Hamilton College, opened the event by explaining how the archive originated with a creative writing course he taught inside Attica Correctional Facility for 10 years. The experience taught him the value of giving incarcerated people a means of expressing themselves.

“[Incarcerated people are] living... years inside this institution, which is a daily passion play of what happens when the state can lay hands on citizens with no accountability,” he said. “What I discovered is if you just help people learn to write clearly about what they're experiencing inside, they will produce documents that will be important for the world outside.”

The experience of teaching the course inspired Larson to put an ad in prison-support newsletters calling for essay submissions. He received so many submissions that after publishing some in a book collection, he decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive so that more people could read about and understand the experiences of incarcerated people.

“The experience of reading this work simply is transformative,” he said. “If you ask anyone to read 15 essays from 15 states, from the moment they start that process they will have a new...and more granulated sense of how the criminal and legal system works.”

Senior Adriana Orduña presented her research findings based on extensive reading of essays in the archive. Orduña found that prisoners are controlled to an extent that prevents them from accessing their basic needs.

“In the case of prisons, bureaucratic violence means that incarcerated people face punishment at every turn,” she said. “From the moment that incarcerated people enter prison to the moment they leave, prison guards and administration can use rules and regulations to limit [their] ability to access vital resources.”

Orduña highlighted specific examples of bureaucratic violence she discovered in the archive, including high conduct standards prisoners are held to by guards, intentional social isolation of prisoners and systemic barriers preventing prisoners from accessing educational and self-help programs.

Junior Emma Petite explained her research findings regarding the experience of inmates during COVID-19.

“Administrative responses permitted COVID to run rampant through prisons, and subsequent deaths and debilitation were certainly preventable,” she said. “Even so, failure alone cannot describe what happened. Failure connotes that there was effort made to protect incarcerated populations. What incarcerated individuals experienced was not failure but abandonment.”

Senior Eliza Zimmerman discussed her research from the archive about how the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA), which was intended to deter the sexual assault of prisoners, has been ineffective.

“PREA becomes a physical way for an incarcerated person to remove people that they have conflict with, [and] the existence of PREA extends guard power over the incarcerated,” she said. “I looked at 50 essays that write about PREA, [and] there’s not a single report of PREA [being successful].”

Zimmerman added that she concluded PREA encouraged different forms of guard retaliation that silenced victims, including guards violating the confidentiality of PREA by telling other incarcerated people who made certain reports and guards punishing prisoners for reporting sexual assaults. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, sophomore Mariel Lindsay expressed her hope that the archive will help make literature about incarceration more accurate.

“One of my big takeaways [from the event was that] literature about mass incarceration [is] usually [written by] scholars [who] don't incorporate the actual voices of people who are being imprisoned,” she said. “It's great that they have this archive that anybody can read and use to learn about what's happening.”

Sophomore Nana Osei-Owusu remarked that listening to the discussion made him want to read other essays from the archive in an interview with The News-Letter.

“I'm intrigued because human beings, we’re [...] so narrow-minded,“ he said “When people with different circumstances begin to gain insight, [we] begin to understand that we all come from different worlds.”

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