Q+A: Melissa Munn, archivist of the prison press

"Prisoners are the original prison journalists. The writers in the penal press give voice to the lived experience of incarceration"

When inmates at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario decided to begin writing, editing, and publishing their own magazine, their goals were clear. A 1953 issue declared the purpose of the C.B. Diamond: “to acquaint the public with the true status of the inmate; to disseminate penological information, and to aid in dispelling the prejudice which has always been the bar sinister to a fallen man’s self improvement and redemption.”

The Diamond’s July 1955 issue outlined the publication’s mission in even greater detail: “I am the Penal Press, and it is my duty to percolate, to infiltrate, to exhort, to improve, to impart, and to deprecate. I am the servant of the prisoner. I am his mouthpiece.”

Beginning in the 1950s, inmate journalists at institutions across North America operated their own prison or penal presses, galvanized in some places by the presence of state-of-the-art printing presses and accompanying vocational training. The papers were distributed both to prisoners and subscribers on the outside, and the mainstream press had their back. 

The Angolite, publishes out of Louisiana State Penitentiary (popularly known as Angola), produced award-winning journalism under editors Wilbert Rideau and Billy Sinclair. But as incarceration rates skyrocketed and institution staff exercised stricter censorship over the inmate journalists, the penal press gradually died off from lack of both funding and institutional support. A US prisoner’s rights collective estimates that only two penal presses with a significant readership still operate in the country despite a 500% increase in prison populations since 1980.

Dr. Melissa Munn, a professor at Okanagan College in British Columbia, has preserved thousands of prison publications, and digitized over 1500 issues published by prison presses across North America, in part thanks to a physical collection maintained by criminologist Dr. Robert Gaucher.

“I do think we’ve seen a dramatic shift in the past couple years, largely owing to the work of Black activists and Black scholars who have been driving the Defund the Police movement, driving the prison abolition movement, driving the Black Lives Matter movement, and really putting that in the forefront of peoples’ consciousness,” says Munn.

Following the protest of the summer of 2020 and calls for decarceration and abolition, journalists can look to and learn from the original journalists on the prison beat: prisoners. 

I asked Munn about the history of the prison press over the 20th century, and the relationship between the penal press and journalists on the outside.

Study Hall: How did you collect all these issues of penal press publications?

Melissa Munn: Robert Gaucher had a print collection, and I started digitizing it. I would literally go to libraries and archives across the country with this portable scanner in my backpack and my laptop, and I would sit and try to scan page by page and reassemble them into one file. It’s been such a slow process. Some of them are very delicate, they’re on very fragile paper so we’re super careful on how we scan them and store them.

SH: Why is the penal press important compared to mainstream media coverage of incarceration?

MM: Prisoners are the original prison journalists. The writers in the penal press give voice to the lived experience of incarceration. The voice of prisoners has long been absent from public and scholarly discussions, so that’s really important. And the writers there have been so far ahead of the curve on what is needed. In the 1950s, writers in the penal press were talking about the need to stop incarcerating people for drug crimes, the need to have safe injection sites. This is in the ‘50s! I fast forward 70 years, and I’m like, “Gee whiz, why weren’t we listening to what they had to say?”

In the ‘30s, there was this prisoner named Oswald Withrow, and he wrote a book called Shackling The Transgressor. His book came out of his connection with a Globe and Mail editor who wanted him to document the conditions at Kingston Penitentiary, so he ended up writing this short series for the Globe and Mail. It’s a very scathing indictment of the conditions there. There’s this long history of prisoners trying to share a reality that most of us don’t ever get to see. That’s maybe the essence of journalism, trying to tell a truth to the masses.

SH: How did some prisons create such sophisticated presses?

MM: If you look at the early penal press, they have beautiful publications with multicoloured, beautiful images because they had a printing press and they were training people to run it. Kingston Penitentiary was doing a lot of the government’s printing because they had printing presses. It was seen as a vocational activity to learn this skill set. The Beacon at Dorchester Penitentiary was just done with a paper typewriter. They would type it up and hand draw their images onto the Gestetner paper before they ran it off. So some that come after that aren’t as nice because they’re working with these rudimentary systems and they’re not being funded as well. There was an investment in those early ones, and then it becomes a source of tension: who gets funded?

Prison is a microcosm in the same way that the free press is. Some free presses are really well funded and other ones are these struggling upstarts that are just trying to get their foot in the door. Also in the penal press, we have the whims of the warden, of the institution. How much support are they gonna put behind it?

SH: What’s changed since then? With new tech, shouldn’t prison presses be even more prolific?

MM: As they got critical, as wardens started to take more offence to that, they started really cracking down because they didn’t want to have their prisons exposed for what was really happening in them. There’s been a decline in prisoner solidarity over the years that has been the direct result of more punitive practices and the priority given to risk management. So prisoners feel if they speak out, the punishment that the state will impose on them is that their risk level will go up and they will be less likely to get parole or passes, or they will end up doing harder time. There’s certainly precedent for that in the history of the penal press. It requires a real kind of chutzpah, a real commitment to critique, because you’re gonna potentially pay the price for that going forward. Even workers within the system who support the penal press and prisoner voices being heard find themselves on the receiving end of harassment.

Early on, the penal press was funded, received money to cover costs by the government, and then they would sell subscriptions. In some cases they sold ads, and the ads would pay for the paper. What’s happened over the years is the government has cracked down on them being able to sell ads, and has made it so that the money for the penal press newsletters has to come out of the inmate committee funds. There’s always a lot of competition for those funds. They don’t necessarily have the pool of money there, and wages for prison workers have not kept pace so there’s more of a hesitancy to self-funding these publications.

Now, prisoners are not allowed for the most part access to the internet. Access to computers is at best very, very dated. Those editors and writers are working on antiquated equipment with CD-ROMs. While this could have been and could still be an avenue for training prisoners, giving them vocational training in writing, publishing, production, in computer knowledge and programming, none of that exists for them.

SH: What has the relationship between the penal press and outside press been like?

MM: There is a record in the free press of them being in solidarity with the prison publishers, the editors and editorial board in particular, for their control of their own stories. When editorial boards of a penal press would resign to protest the extreme censorship they were feeling, that would be covered quite dramatically by editors in mainstream publications.

When the editors of Transition at British Columbia Penitentiary resigned en masse to protest censorship of their critique of the system, the mainstream press, the free press, came out swinging in support of them. They would say, “If you’re going to censor this publication, it has no value. We’re watching you.” That kind of solidarity was really incredible.