Deep in the labyrinth of Johns Hopkins’ sprawling Homewood campus, Vesla Mae Weaver sits at a desk that is as stacked with mail as a village postmaster’s—piles of essays, all handwritten, from across the country. Because Weaver, 44, is not only Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology at Johns Hopkins but also, as of 2022, the co-director of the American Prison Writing Archive, the country’s largest digital collection of writings by incarcerated people, all accessible to the public.
There are now almost 5,000 first-person accounts—essays, diaries, poetry—each addressing the experience of incarceration from over 400 facilities across 48 states, with more coming in, essay by longhand essay, hundreds of pieces of mail every month.
The APWA was founded in 2012 at Hamilton College, a small private college in upstate New York, by Doran Larson. Larson, 66, a Hamilton literature and creative writing professor, was teaching a writing class at Attica Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison infamous for its deadly 1971 revolt. Larson, who still teaches at Hamilton and is the APWA’s co-director with Weaver, had put out a call for submissions for a book—Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, published in 2014—and was astonished at the amount of writing he received from incarcerated people across the country. The writings also gave him a rare window into America’s massive, dysfunctional, impossibly overloaded prison system. While Larson continued teaching and writing, the submissions also continued and the archive grew, as incarcerated writers sent essay after essay, like messages in paper bottles.
After more than a decade at Hamilton, in late 2022, the APWA moved to the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins and received a $2.3-million grant from the Mellon Foundation. Hopkins not only had Weaver, but was a larger, research-based university better able to accommodate the growing archive. Weaver had met Larson when she gave a talk at Hamilton, and had become involved with APWA after a student of hers wrote a thesis based on the archive, which became the basis of an animated series with The Marshall Project, the nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
Of the nearly 5,000 accounts in the APWA, only 75 are currently from Maryland writers, a number that Weaver hopes will increase with the move to Baltimore. As of 2020, the number of people under the jurisdiction of the State of Maryland was just short of 16,000, in 24 state prisons, plus private prisons and local jails. With an increase in funding and staff, and a larger presence, Weaver thinks it’s just a matter of getting the word out.
“Old-school and old-fashioned snail mail is the way we do things,” says Weaver of the archive, which does not take digital submissions due to issues of both privacy and accessibility. This means that the mail must be opened by hand and read, then entered into the archive and digitized—a process that is time-consuming, especially as the handwritten pieces, sometimes difficult to read, must first be digitized, then transcribed so that a digital image of the scanned essay is on the site as well as the transcription, and some identifying information removed. Although the names of the writers are shown—unless the writer asks to be anonymous—where they are incarcerated and why they are there is not. The entire archive is available online at prisonwitness.org.
“I intend to continue to find and create whatever meaning I can in my days, to tend to my little carceral garden,” writes Nicholas W. Browning in a 10-page 2019 essay, one of those 75 Maryland submissions. “It is not particularly fulfilling, nor is it easy to live with the knowledge of my crime. But, each of us in here, juvenile lifer or otherwise, has a choice: to stagnate or grow—however fitfully, and in spite of the circumstances.”
One of the many things that makes the archive so powerful is that the handwritten submissions are scanned as they are and transcribed exactly, with misspellings and odd punctuation intact, which translates not only voice but context. And the entries are often decorated—Weaver says many of the submissions contain art of some kind—like an illustrated manuscript; there are hand-drawings of birds and trees, architecture, maps, and landscapes filling up the available space. On one essay, a drawing is watercolored in the margins with coffee; on another, a rose is etched up the side of a page, then painted mauve with packets of Kool-Aid. The writings are also often redacted, like classified documents, so the pieces can read like medieval church manuscripts written by spies.
“My name is Andrew R. Sumahit, Jr.,” writes a man held in New York in a 2010 essay, “but for the past two years I have been a prison in- mate. In the past two years, I have only seen my daughter three times, but I have seen at least five people stabbed or cut. I am sharing the story of my life, one man’s struggle to break the cycle, the story of the incarcerated father.”
Sumahit is one of an overwhelming number of parents in American prisons: A 2016 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 47 percent of state prison wards and 58 percent of federal were the parents of at least one minor child. Through the intimacy that only writing allows, the APWA asks you to imagine what it means for those parents behind bars, and for the over five million American children who have experienced the incarceration of a mother or father.
“The number-one indicator for future imprisonment is having an incarcerated parent or familial role model,” writes Corey John Richardson, in a 10-page 2016 essay from a Kentucky facility. “In this way, prison is a self-perpetuating reality, like a gene passed on generation after generation.”
“It grew rather slowly,” says Larson about the archive he started over a decade ago. “At first, it was basically the people who wanted to write and knew about the print collection, knew that the deadline had passed, but nonetheless wanted to send their stories out. Just to have someone, anyone, read about their experiences.”
Larson says that the quality of the submissions from the start was remarkable. “Our default position is to take everything, as long as it’s actually dealing with the criminal legal system,” he says. “Somebody sends a short story about a fishing trip with their father years ago, that doesn’t go in. If they say at the beginning, this is what I think about when I’m in solitary, it goes in.”
When considering what conditions inside prisons are truly like—as well as how to improve and reform them—it is the imprisoned people themselves who are uniquely able to give the most accurate representation.
“People who are the most subjugated often have the most to say and the best theories about how power actually works and what it means to live as a marginalized group in a democracy,” says Weaver. “The archive is not just one thing. Some are talking about prison conditions in very raw ways, others are just narrating their life experience, discussions of relationships they have built inside, and how they’re surviving.”
One of the biggest goals both Larson and Weaver have for the APWA is to give incarcerated writers a sense of continuity. “There was so much taken away—arbitrarily, all the time—ripped out from incarcerated people’s hands. People have little to no control, no agency, no autonomy in the institution. So continuity is important,” says Weaver. To this end, as well as to further add to the context of the collection, writers can continue to submit pieces after their release. They can be prolific; some have 40 pieces in the archive.
If the goal was to provide continuity for the archive’s writers, and an outlet for their writings to be preserved, it is also to provide—and grow—accessibility for its readers.
“Our mission is to have as many people engage in this work as possible, and to not be overly prescriptive in how they engage it. It may be policymakers,” says Weaver. But it can also be students, researchers, journalists, historians, criminal justice reformers, or those who are simply interested. “This is a hub, a resource, so that multiple different non-overlapping communities can engage with it.” This isn’t a digital literary magazine, although it can sometimes read like one, but an extraordinary catalog of narratives, of communiques, of witness. What incarcerated people go through on a daily basis, says Weaver, “has to be told through stories and direct experience, it can’t be told through statistics and abstractions.”
“Wouldn’t you feel rage if your every day existance was spent 23 hours a day in a space the size of a parking space? These are just some of the reasons I feel rage,” writes Tracy L. Skinner from a Maryland facility in 2020. “My voice is not loud enough to shout for the 2.8 mil- lion people in the U.S. prison system.”
The move to Hopkins and the increase in funding have led to a larger staff, in addition to expanded resources. Working with Larson and Weaver are associate manager Hannah Young, program coordinator Tristan Gordon, Sheridan Library’s metadata librarian Noah Geraci, and three new program assistants, Maura Cheney, Emily Sanchez, and Tirzah Sheppard. Sanchez and Sheppard are also Spanish-speakers, a valuable skill not only for reading submissions in Spanish but for eventually making the archive itself multilingual.
Weaver and her staff have not only been busy digitizing the backlog of submissions, but are also working to make sure that when writers’ pieces are republished, they are paid for their work, itself a difficult and labor-intensive effort. (If outlets do not offer compensation, the APWA will pay on the publication’s behalf—$98 per item, so as not to flag tax issues for the author.) Some of the publications that have featured work within the archive include The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Solitary Watch, and The Marshall Project.
To make the site as user-friendly as possible, the archive is searchable by keywords and phrases, author, and by some author demographic information—though many writers choose not to disclose this information. A new push is to curate the archive’s contents, to gather writings on certain subjects (family issues, solitary confinement, mental health) into more easily navigable sections. That’s because the archive is meant to be accessible, the messages unfolded from their bottles and read.
“In my building two cellies stabbed each other. Went to the medical. Then to the main office and the only thing that happen was they got separated. There was blood everywhere,” writes Jamilah L. Knox from California in 2020. “There is no Rehabilitation at all . . . Education is limited. No real workable career choices. So before you get on jury duty. Read this. Because it might give you second thought about sending a petty crime offender to prison. Its not worth it. Thank you.”
Historically, what little information we have about prisons comes from those who run the institutions, not the people inside them. Prison writing is a way to widen that perspective.
“I’m not a specialist in prison writing,” says Weaver. “My past work is about the democratic consequences of incarceration. Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t a sense that prison was deeply implicated in shaping citizenship and shaping carceral lifeworlds and shaping how people, ordinary people, experience government,” she continues, noting that much has changed since then, in the wake of uprisings and court cases and as America incarcerates more and more people.
While Larson, as a creative writing professor, has long realized the value of prison writing to illuminate what life is like inside, it’s not often that policymakers have been willing—or able—to access those writings.
“We want to make this work not just available,” says Larson, “but unavoidable. So it will seem naive not to take into account what incarcerated people are saying about policies and practices. This archive was really built by incarcerated people, by the writers inside. They quickly just broke through the gates of analog publication. The platform has really just been about catching up and giving them a platform for the enormous amount of work that’s coming out. I don’t think people have any conception of how much writing incarcerated people do. I had a man in my class who’d written seven 400-plus-page novels and lost them all in a cell search.”
“Living in prison as an inmate is: 1. humiliating 2. heart braking 3. boring 4. stressful 5. mind altering, and these are just a few issues,” writes William Liepe from a New Jersey facility. “I find that we are existing not living in conditions much like animals in a zoo. At 68 I wonder if death is not better. If I can’t be working my farm, why has god kept me, I ask him a lot.”
Over the years, the archive has called for solicitations primarily through Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine published by the Human Rights Defense Center, a Florida-based nonprofit. But PLN does not circulate evenly across the country, and was, according to Larson, recently blocked by Florida courts. The APWA is looking for other ways to call for submissions, particularly “prison witness gatherers”—the term used for those who are able to write or collect prison narratives—volunteers who are going directly into prisons, or the formerly incarcerated who are still involved in the institutions. There’s also an acute awareness of how many states and populations are underrepresented. Right now, the archive skews to populations from California, New York, and Texas.
Of the essays by authors who have chosen to disclose their gender, just over 4,800 are men, 300 are women, and fewer than 70 are by people who self-identify as trans or “other.”
While the goal of the archive hasn’t changed, it’s now reaching a broader audience—and further broadening that audience is a major goal. “I can tell you from experience that students who read this work, whatever images they had of prisons and incarcerated people essentially just dissolve,” says Larson. “And what they’re then thinking about is the people whose work they’ve read.” And while there haven’t yet been any specific policy shifts as a result of the archive, that is the hope. “We are just at the beginning of our efforts toward amplification,” says Weaver.
From a Texas prison in an essay dated 2020, Roy Shiloh Bryant writes: “‘They’ are now claiming ‘electricity failures’—shutting the electricity off for four/five hours during 96/98 degrees with a heat index 106 confining us to these cells i.e., great dane dog houses 24/7 no air (by the way, the hogs have air conditions, all 39,000 convicts have no in cell air). These cells are about 4 1/2 ft. by 8 1/2 ft. improper venti- lation, from 1925)… We have ate cold food for three months. Dear editor, if you know anyone willing to write my book, refer them? I have a story. Keep in mind, I don’t have long to live. I’m turning seventy (70).”
The aging of America’s prison population is just one of many issues demanding change from politicians and policymakers.
“What I’m hoping in the future is that this will actually have an effect on people thinking about policy,” says Larson. “We still use the terms ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘containment’ and ‘deterrence,’ and the institution just isn’t achieving any of those things. I want people to understand that and understand that this is essentially one of the greatest policy disasters in the history of the US. It’s just never worked; it’s never achieved the things it’s claimed to have achieved.”
“In Texas Prisons even more guys think about and do commit suicide. This is not only because of the guilt they feel for what ever crime they may have or did commit. Its because of The Loneliness, Isolation, Boredom and so on,” writes William T. Jacobsen from a Texas facility. “The suicide rate in Texas Prisons is worse than anyone will admit.”
Giving voice to those inside this country’s prisons is valuable to those outside the system and within it.
“Incarcerated people mostly can’t see this,” says Weaver of the archive, but they know it’s there. And even if they can’t see it, their family members can, as well as any member of the public with an internet connection. The visibility of the narratives is as crucial as it is compensatory, a way to give voice to those who have lost it. The hope is for journalists, lawmakers, students, reformers, and politicians not only to read these narratives but to use them—as primary sources from an institution that’s almost as walled-off as its inhabitants.
“I think the greatest common denominator is our profound sense of loss,” writes Kristine Cosgrove in looping cursive from a California prison. “Something has been stolen, lost, taken, or broken in the blink of an eye, and I find myself tearing up with them—when they feel safe enough to let me in,” Cosgrove writes, about her fellow incarcerated women. “And when someone who’s suffered for so long in silence without ever trusting anyone to just SIT and be quiet; to grieve with another human being; well—it changes you. It changes your perspective about a lot of things.”
Changing perspectives is exactly what the APWA would like to accomplish, by further opening the windows—and the mailboxes—into and from the some 7,000 state and federal prisons, correctional facilities, and other systems of confinement across 21st-century America. The number of people in those systems has dropped in some states, while other state populations are still growing.
And in a Johns Hopkins mailroom, the letters keep coming