Collection Description

History, Progress, Mission

The American Prison Writing Archive evolved from a book project completed in 2014 with the publication of Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America, the largest collection to date of non-fiction writing by currently incarcerated Americans writing about their experience inside. The submission deadline for Fourth City passed in August 2011, yet submissions never ceased. The imperative to build the APWA grew from the clear evidence that, once invited, incarcerated people would not give up the chance to tell their stories. The APWA currently holds over 1,200 essays in its paper files, enough work to fill over sixteen books the size of Fourth City (a 338-page, 7”x10” volume).

The APWA remains a work in progress. The behind-the-site work of building the first fully searchable prison-writing archive—scanning and coding each page of text, refining search features, transcribing hand-written essays, making a fully sustainable digital archive—continues. We ask visitors to be patient as we seek the funding and human resources to ingest and upload all of the essays we have on hand as well as those that arrive every day. (Any reader can contribute to this work by clicking on the Transcription tabs.)

Our goal is to replace speculation on and misrepresentation of prisons and imprisoned people with first-person witness by those on the receiving end of American criminal justice. No single essay can tell us all that we need to know. But a mass-scale, national archive of writing by incarcerated people can begin to strip away widely circulated myths and replace them with some sense of the true human costs of the current legal order. By soliciting, preserving, digitizing and disseminating the work of imprisoned people, we hope to ground national debate on mass incarceration in the lived experience of those who know jails and prisons best. This is the mission of the APWA.


Questionnaire Document

Please click the link below for the printable American Prison Writing Archive questionnaire document.

Examples of the Writings


Principal Investigator
Doran Larson, Ph.D.
Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature and Creative Writing
dlarson@hamilton.edu