The past year has shed light on the inequities that exist in America and the need to address these through not only policy changes, but through educational and cultural experiences that deepen our collective consciousness. Given our mission to expand access to knowledge and education for everyone, we are seeking out opportunities to promote learning and dialogue by bringing previously unheard voices into college and high school classrooms, into our libraries, and into public discourse. We are excited to be engaged in this work with others, and are thrilled today to announce that we have received a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to help us raise the voices of a population that is largely invisible in America and disproportionately people of color: incarcerated individuals.

With The Mellon Foundation’s support, we will accelerate and increase the impact of a project we have been developing for some time called American Prison Newspapers: 1800-2020.

For 200 years, incarcerated people have published their own newspapers. The first known publication, Forlorn Hope, debuted on March 24, 1800 from a debtor’s prison in New York City. Almost a century later, in 1883, the Elmira Reformatory created The Summary, the second-known prison newspaper. By 1936 somewhere between 103 and 127 prisons launched an “inmate publication,” representing almost half of the 266 prisons in the United States at that time. From there, the number of prison newspapers waxed and waned, from a high point of 250 newspapers in 1959, to today when only a handful remain, like The Angolite and San Quentin News.

Throughout this history, these incarcerated journalists wrote from behind bars about a broad range of topics from politics, current events, and economics to health care, family life, and the arts. While some papers were subjected to editorial control and censorship by prison administrations, what was universal is that each provided valuable insider perspectives on the life experience of incarcerated people.

Kerry Myers, former editor of The Angolite and Deputy Director of the Louisiana Parole Project, recently shared his thoughts with us on the unique importance of prison journalism: Talking about his time at The Angolite, he said, “What we offered was a perspective that mainstream journalism could not get to. Prison is often a very closed society. It is just not available. And without that voice – without a free voice – to chronicle what goes on inside a prison, to address the issues that affect people who are in prison, what you have is what has happened over the last 20-30 years [which] in my view is a very distorted view of what prison is like and of the people who are in prison. If we really want our society to create policy that is beneficial for both public safety and for the families of the people who are incarcerated and for those who are incarcerated, [if] we want to be more about redemption and restoration, then knowing what goes on inside of prisons is very important.”

Our Reveal Digital team, as part of its Diversity & Dissent Fund, has been working on an ambitious project to select and fund the digitization of hundreds of prison newspapers, with the ultimate aim of making them open access. Reveal Digital has secured funding from sixty-one libraries to date to support this work. With the Mellon Foundation funds, we are now able to increase the number of newspapers we can digitize, make the content free and open to the public on our JSTOR platform, and invest in important additional, but often overlooked and underfunded areas – the long-term preservation of the material and optimizing its use.

We are already working with ten state, academic, and public libraries to source and digitize the newspapers. When complete, the resulting collection of 250,000 pages from a wide range of newspapers will be preserved by our Portico team, which manages the long-term preservation of digital content at scale, including significant historical newspaper collections.

We are also extremely excited to be able to create resources that will help students, educators, researchers and the public find, use, and engage with this rare archive. For the first time, we will hire a Fellow to join our Reveal Digital team to produce supporting materials for teaching with this primary source collection. A new JSTOR Daily editor will also commission articles designed to highlight individual newspapers and improve our collective understanding of the history of mass incarceration. This editorial work will be modeled on JSTOR Daily’s past success providing context around the Campus Underground newspapers in Reveal Digital’s Independent Voices collection.

A critical component of this work will be taking into account the needs of those who are incarcerated whose experiences and perspectives are embodied in these materials. We are committed to finding ways to provide access to the collection to those who are incarcerated, overcoming barriers that this population experiences to materials openly accessible to those on the outside, and to ensuring that we take an ethical and thoughtful approach to documenting and preserving their history through this project.

Projects like this are only possible through collaboration. We are grateful to be able to work with educators, libraries and foundations, and our advisors to pursue this effort. There are 2.2 million people behind bars in America today, and millions more have lived in prisons over the past centuries. Most Americans have little insight into their world or how they experience the greater world around them. Together, we hope to change that.

The American Prison Newspapers collection will be openly available on July 1, 2021, with additional newspapers released regularly to the collection as they are digitized.

Get Involved

The American Prison Newspaper collection needs partner libraries to provide source materials for digitization. Libraries interested in learning more should visit our website for updates and ways to get involved with the project.

Related Information

This project is one of several ITHAKA initiatives focused on improving access to knowledge and education in American prisons and bridging the gap between the incarcerated and the public.

Other areas of work we currently focus on: