Other Voices: The American Prison Writing Archive

In the fall of 2009 writer Doran Larson put out a call for essays from incarcerated people and prison staff about what life was like inside, and five years later, in 2014, Michigan State University Press published a selection of them as Fourth City: Essays From the Prison in America. But the essays never stopped coming. “I’m holding a handwritten essay that just arrived today,” Larson said in August. “Once people knew there was a venue where someone would read their work, they kept writing.” Instead of letting this steady stream of essays go unread, Larson decided to create the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA), an open-source archive of essays by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, as well as correctional officers and staffers. Accessible to anyone online, the APWA (apw.dhinitiative.org) is a “virtual meeting place” to “spread the voices of unheard populations.”

With more than 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails, the United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other country in the world. But most Americans don’t know anything about life inside, which can leave them both indifferent to those who live and work there and divorced from the justice system their tax dollars reinforce. Larson hopes to rectify this disconnect with the APWA, and after receiving a $262,000 grant in March from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the archive is poised to do just that.

Read more about the APWA in this story in Poets and Writers, or browse the stories in the archive itself. 

In one of them, "Alone Amidst a Crowd," inmate and writer D.E. Sharpe describes what it's like when a cellmate or "cellie" is suddenly gone - transferred to another block or facility, maybe, or perhaps "just gone." 

"An interesting silence ensues when a cellie leaves; one permeated with soft whispers and rustlings, cracking and creakings; almost as if the ghost of your old cellmate still prowls the narrow confines of the man cage [...]. One can still hear the soft snore, the raspy breath, the slurp of coffee in the morning and the rare sigh of contentment. You look, half-expecting to see him peer around the edges of his book, or peek over the top of his T.V. You look but are quickly disappointed. It is then that you begin to hate the next poor fellow who will soon fill the doorway, bags and boxes of property in his hands and a look of fearful expectation. There is also, oftentimes, a barely submerged machismo along with a shaky facade of a somewhat contemptible toughness. You recognize this look. You've seen it a hundred times. You wear it yourself."