The American Prison Writing Archive is moving to the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University.
Doran Larson, founder of the archive, said the university is better equipped to grow the archive than its current spot.
“We want to move the archive from Hamilton College, which is a small 1,800-student teaching college [in New York], to Johns Hopkins, so that it has the sustaining resources that are available there,” Larson said.
The APWA includes essays from current and formerly incarcerated people, as well as some prison staff. The essays look at what goes on inside the prisons, as well as the challenges that many people face once they are out of prison.
Larson wants the APWA to be “the archive of record for first-person testimony about the experience of incarceration in the United States.” He also wants the archive to collaborate with other projects working with a similar motive.
Despite the archive being open to both incarcerated people and staff, Larson said the majority of essays are from incarcerated people, with only a limited number coming from staff.
“We only have a few essays from correctional staff,” Larson said. “There is a sort of code of silence among staff.”
Incarcerated people who submit essays are doing so to better their lives, while there isn’t nearly as much at stake for prison staff, according to Larson.
Despite being unsure about what exactly Larson wants readers to take away from the APWA, he described the large scope of stories that one might find as part of the archive.
“Even though people are scattered across the country, it’s remarkable how similar the experience is of incarceration,” Larson said. “There are striking stories of human resilience, the ability to be inside the system for years or decades, and still have the wherewithal to write about it, and to hope it actually changes something. There are many stories of implicit triumph, people being victorious over their own degradation by the system itself, but people also talk about the things that they lost.”
The media gives people an altered image of what prison is like, and what incarcerated people are like as well, according to Larson. He hopes the AWPA can change that.
“I sincerely believe that anyone that comes to the archive and reads 15 essays, that, between the time that they begin that reading process and end the reading process, they will have a fundamentally changed notion of how the American prison system works, and how the criminal justice system works in the United States,” Larson said.
The American Prison Writing Archive is scheduled to be moved to Johns Hopkins by the end of 2022 — the easiest of the goals for the archive, according to Larson.