Joshua Mitchell – Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, University of Southern California and James P. Danky Fellow 2017
In this blog series, we introduce people working for or associated with the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture.
In the mid-20th century, state and federal prisons across the United States and Canada allocated funds to publish newspapers and magazines for an imprisoned readership in monthly or weekly installments. Prisoners participated in the writing, editing, illustration, and printing of these papers, and they even traded their publications by mail to be read by men and women serving sentences all over North America. The hundreds of imprisoned journalists who participated in this exchange decided to organize under a loosely associated network they called the Penal Press. Through the Penal Press, imprisoned people were able to learn about the news and cultural activities that took place at institutions across the continent.
As someone who studies the cultural history of imprisoned people, it has been a privilege to view and study the Wisconsin Historical Society’s collection of prison journalism. I believe it is imperative for scholars to privilege the analytical writings of imprisoned people in histories of imprisonment, and the collection of prison newspapers at the Wisconsin Historical Society has allowed me to do that. My dissertation, “The Prisoner’s Cinema: Film Culture in the Penal Press Before 1960,” examines Penal Press papers that I’ve collected by visiting thirteen states and Canada. I use these papers to create a history of film and television exhibition in prisons, which combines my research interests in prison history, print culture, and the non-theatrical exhibition of cinema. The project offers a study of prison audiences, who were distinct from the audiences who would have watched the many same movies in theatrical venues.
On November 13, 2017, I will be presenting “Print Culture in Prisons: Promoting Entertainment in the Penal Press.” My talk will examine the visual strategies used by imprisoned journalists to advertise upcoming film screenings and other entertainment exhibited in prisons. Through the archive of the Penal Press, I will argue that imprisoned spectators possessed shrewd evaluations of the moving images presented to them, and used movie screenings as occasions to critique the institutional settings in which they lived.
I have visited the Wisconsin Historical Society for the past two summers to perform research for the broader project from which this talk emerges. The talk will use examples of movie advertisements that appeared in a wide variety of Penal Press papers, including The Candle (Wisconsin State Prison), Ohio Penitentiary News (Ohio Penitentiary), Menard Time (Illinois State Penitentiary), and Rikers Review (New York City Penitentiary), all of which are part of the periodicals collection at Wisconsin Historical Society. In addition to these unique prison publications, I have also been able to access the historical society’s collection of state documents, particular biennial prison reports from states across the country. Together, these documents tell the story of how recreation and leisure were incorporated into the repressive prison regimes of the era.