Humanity has demonstrated a fascination with crime, and has operated many experiments to stop criminality. Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish opens by juxtaposing the chaotic torture of Damiens the regicide in the 18th century with the daily schedule of prisoners in Mettray in the 19th. He tracks the change in operations from public torture and execution to chain gangs and finally, to the prison system we know today.
I’m happy to nail my colours to the mast on this one: I don’t think prison works. The racism, classism, and misogyny that prop up the carceral system make it fundamentally unfair. Prison doesn’t deliver justice, and as a core part of the justice system, that makes it a pretty big flop to me.
Today’s prison is supposed to be about the deprivation of liberty: that in itself is the punishment. For most prisoners, the system adds punishment on top of punishment, stripping people of personal belongings, freedom of movement, and sanitation. In some cases, it’s also subjecting prisoners to forced labour as well as physical and emotional harm. Prisoners are constantly monitored, the subjects of observation without power, separated from the rest of us in a very literal form of “othering.”
In fact, it’s all so othering that prisoners have few opportunities to air their grievances. There are of course exceptional examples of prison literature — Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail among them. Much like oral histories, though, there’s loads to be explored beneath the surface about life in prison — and ordinary prisoners have, for generations, expressed themselves in prison newspapers.
This post will look into the history of the prison newspaper, explore the purpose of carceral publishing and deep dive into some real prison newspapers, which display a truly remarkable array of artistic endeavour, creativity, hope and solidarity. Prison newspapers are deeply humanising; the bad guys are not so obvious once you’ve had a read.
History of the Prison Newspaper
The first prison newspaper in the U.S. came about in 1900, when William Keteltas, an imprisoned attorney, published Forlorn Hope — first in a history of hundreds which popped up across the country. By 1895, the U.S. National Prisons Congress had laid out ten points for a “Model Prison Newspaper,” noting the importance of prisoners keeping on top of public information and development. By 1935, 50% of state and federal penal institutions had engaged with publishing prisoner newspapers or periodicals. As the rest of the world developed an eager penchant for news and information, and technology boosted capacity, newspapers outside prisons boomed happily across generations — but the prison press largely died off in the United States in the 1980s. The prison population exploded, and overcrowding led to strain on resources — and in a world with a relatively small subscriber and advertising pool, income was surely limited. By the 2000s, only a handful of newspapers were still in circulation.
In 1990, a riot kicked off at Strangeways prison in Manchester, England. The prison was drastically overcrowded, prisoners rarely left their cells except for “slopping out” (emptying their toilet buckets — still very much part of many prison services globally) and taking exercise for an hour per day. An uptick in assaults on prisoners created further unrest, and on April 1 that year, a protest became a riot which held the prison for 25 days.
By the time it was over, more than 100 prison officers and almost 50 prisoners had been injured. Strangeways 1990: A Serious Disturbance noted that the media in England published abject lies about the riot, including that a policeman had been hanged and that there were 20 deaths, resulting in the Press Council condemning mass media response. Rioter Alan Lord wrote about his experience in the riot in Life in Strangeways – From Riots to Redemption, expressing the depth and breadth of inhumanity he experienced in the system.
The Strangeways riot led directly to the creation of Inside Time, a newspaper which would give prisoners a voice — though still through the lens of journalism as opposed to their own unfiltered thoughts and emotions.
Prison newspapers gave — and still give, though it’s a smaller world now — prisoners a voice from inside the system, allowing them to express difficulties, seek support, develop awareness and skillsets that may not have been possible outside of prison. After all, Wilbert Rideau, author of In the Place of Justice, spent 44 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) on a murder charge, where he became an award-winning journalist. Under his leadership, The Angolite won a Robert F Kennedy Journalism Award.
It seems sad to me that prison newspapers, once a significant part of prison life, are now mostly redundant. With the rise of television, video games, and internet access, perhaps prisons think there is less need for prisoners to be facilitated in connecting to the outside world in paper publishing formats.
A Peek Into Some Prison Newspapers
If you want to have a look at some prison newspapers, there are plenty to choose from, including ongoing ones on both sides of the Atlantic.
ConVerse is a UK-based publication, published by reformed offenders. Its most recent edition (February 2022) exposes the ongoing impact of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP), in which convicted people were sent to prison in the UK for an indeterminate period of time, never knowing when they could be released, unable to plan for any future. The issue asks why courts are sending mentally unwell people to prison in the UK, and has a fascinating story about how the UK Police are attempting to force a journalist to give up his sources following his exposure of the Birmingham Six miscarriage of justice.
La Roca was a U.S. based prison newspaper, published out of the Arizona State Prison. The LA Times ran a piece on it in 1990 which shows some of the idiosyncrasy involved in prison journalism, and tackles questions about oversight and censorship. The July 1992 edition features an editorial from an outgoing prisoner, who leaves a message for his soon-to-be former peers: “Dare to defend your rights. Fortune favors the bold. Do not place yourself with the blind leading the blind…Set a goal and do something about it, because from nothing, nothing is produced.”
If you want something more current, check out In the Belly, which is issued digitally through Patreon. In the Belly is an abolitionist publication with firm aims to defund the police, demilitarize communities, and address the problems of the prison-industrial complex: “It is absurd for black people to expect justice from Amerikkka”, reads a line from “Cannibals,” an essay in 2020’s Volume 2.
Prison newspapers, both current and former, allow outsiders to see the reality of life in a system which renders a person powerless and a struggle necessary. For prisoners, they serve as a chance to be heard, to share stories and experiences and to build solidarity in a disenfranchised group. During my research into the newspapers for this piece, I was most fascinated by the deeply thought out illustrations, the glib jokes, the textured experiences of the people living their sentences across multiple generations — and how the problems that lead to the prison cell ultimately haven’t changed in centuries. Poverty, racism, addiction; those old offenders continue to create offenders.
Foucault’s example of Damiens the regicide remains relevant even now. When Damiens attempted to assassinate Louis XV, his drawn-out death was watched by an applauding crowd. Thirty-six years later, Louis XV’s son was deposed by guillotine. As he waited for death, Louis XVI was dignified, composed; he made a short speech and died swiftly. Damiens — poor, ignoble, unwell — was offered no such mercy. Casanova, present at the death of the regicide, wrote of the need to turn his face away and block his ears as Damiens was literally torn to pieces. Now, as then, punishment and fairness are two different things.
If you want to find out more about this fascinating slice of publishing, you can explore the JSTOR collection that inspired this post, American Prison Newspapers 1800–2020.