800 words; 4 minutes to read
Audio summary by volunteer Averi Brailey.
Prisons remain an unknown for most Canadians. We have very little idea of what goes on in these institutions. The series of posts on this blog under the heading of ‘prisoner experience’ are one effort to make real life in these institutions more visible.
There are many accounts of life in prison by those who have been there, including by Canadians. The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, mentioned in previous posts, is one good source. Another fascinating cache of Canadian materials is the website penalpress.com. This site is now maintained by Prof. Melissa Munn at Okanagan College.
Penal Press is an open access collection of prison newsletters and magazines created by prisoners. From their website:
The penal press is a primary source of prison history from within. Written and produced by prisoners, it provides insight into how convicts viewed the penal justice apparatus, its policies and its practices.
According to criminologist Prof. Robert Gaucher “the penal press is a world-wide phenomenon which reached the height of its achievement in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in North America… The Canadian penal press officially came into being on September 1, 1950 with the publication of Kingston Penitentiary’s Telescope. Since then there have been more than one hundred separate penal publications produced and published by prisoners in Canada’s federal penitentiaries.
An article in 1989 in an early edition of the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons by Gaucher describes the origins of this effort to document publications by prisoners, which struck him as important when he was doing his own research on Canadian prison history.
A fascinating archive
The site contains an archive of more than 1200 items dating back to 1949. All of them have been scanned and can be freely downloaded as PDF files. This is a treasure trove for those who want to understand more about the prison experience in Canada through the years. The prime years for materials are the 1970s and 1980s, when for many years there are 30 or 40 items available.
These newsletters contain a wide variety of content. For example, a 1971 newsletter from Dorchester Penitentiary in Nova Scotia addresses problems with the RCMP and the part the Canadian press plays in guarding civil liberties. There is an article suggesting a comprehensive reform of laws covering arrest, pretrial detention, and bail, an article regarding Canada being the most prison-minded country in the world, and a piece on tattooing.
An issue of The Grapevine from Grand Valley Prison for Women in 1999 starts off with a list of upcoming days of celebration, segues into a considerable amount of creative writing, health advice, facts about poisoning, and tips on finding inner peace. It is very likely that some of the people who read that issue when it was new are still imprisoned more than 20 years later.
Challenges and continuities
Producing a publication in prison is not easy. As one description on the site reveals, “the stories inmates told through these publications obscured as much as they revealed about prison life. Is it possible to recoup the voices of this marginalized group from these newsletters? Anxious to air grievances to an outside audience, participants nevertheless had to satisfy administrators’ expectations and avoid offending potentially violent rival inmates”.
Many concerns and issues have lasted throughout the entire period of the archive. Just to pick one example, the KP(Kingston Pen) Telescope from October 1951 has an article about prison reform that includes a discussion of whether under these changes prisoners are now being “coddled”, that ‘pens are being turned into play pens’. According to the article, one citizen commented that prisoners ‘have a better time in there than I have out here’. These views that prisoners have it too easy continue to be expressed in Canada 70 years later and reveal the extent to which many people are focused on punishment, and do not understand how difficult being in prison is under any circumstances.
Another item in the same issue mentions that prisoners in federal penitentiaries will soon be able to get daily newspapers – for the first time.
Still a few publications
On the current side, the site archives all issues of Out of Bounds, a magazine for and by prisoners, produced at William Head Institution, and The Mallard, produced at Mission Institution, both in British Columbia. Because there is still no internet access for prisoners in Canadian prisons, print remains a primary means of communication in prisons and for prisoners.
In addition to its huge archive, the site has a few studies that involved using its archive as source material. One of these is a 2021 book, Disruptive Prisoners’ that ‘reconstitutes the history of Canada’s federal prison system in the mid-twentieth century through a process of collective biography – one involving prisoners, administrators, prison reformers, and politicians’.
This is a site that provides rich resources for anyone wanting to know more about the reality of Canadian prisons in the past and today.