Our 2017 James P. Danky Fellow is Joshua A. Mitchell! Joshua is a doctoral candidate in American Studies and Ethnicity at University of Southern California where he has previously been awarded the Anne Friedberg Memorial Award from USC’s Visual Studies Research Institute.
Joshua’s fellowship project, which will bring him to the Wisconsin Historical Society for research, is titled, “The Prisoner’s Cinema: Film Culture in the Penal Press Before 1960.”
Cinema and newspapers were among the most popular pastimes in North American prisons in the mid-20th century. Film provided comfort to people who endured the physical and mental monotony that were endemic to confinement, and reading materials offered them a forum to participate in public discussions from which they were typically excluded. Recent histories of the prison have analyzed the impact of culture and recreation in penal institutions. This history of prison leisure can best be studied through one of the 20th century’s most vibrant systems of information exchange: the hundreds of prisoner-edited newspapers and magazines that were traded between prisons through a network called the Penal Press. Penal Press publications circulated far beyond the walls of individual institutions, and were traded between editors at distant prisons. This vast circulation of printed material contributed to the dissemination of news between disparate locations. Moreover, these papers featured announcements for films screened in prisons, movie reviews, and gossip about celebrities working in the entertainment industry.
Joshua’s dissertation “The Prisoner’s Cinema: Film Culture in the Penal Press Before 1960” examines prison publications to offer a history of film and television exhibition in North American prisons. The project examines prisons’ lively mid-century print cultures to advance two major historical inquiries: the history of media reception and the history of imprisonment in North America. Using an archive of journalism written and edited by prisoners, it surveys the vast array of Hollywood movies, educational films, and television programs shown to prisoners during the 1940s and 1950s. Providing a history of prison audiences, “The Prisoner’s Cinema” argues that imprisoned spectators possessed shrewd evaluations of the moving images presented to them, and used these screenings as occasions to critique the institutional settings in which they lived.
Since 2008, the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture has given a short-term research fellowship in honor of James P. Danky’s long service to print culture scholarship. The Danky Fellowship provides $1000 in funds for one individual planning a trip to carry out research using the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.