Canadian history with Penal Press

0
73
A photograph of multiple stacks of newspapers that are held together by a thin but sturdy rope.
Information like this is easy to find with the Gaucher/Munn Penal Press Collection Pexels via Pixabay

Have you been thinking about finding a new source for news?

“I am the Penal Press. I attempt to speak to the masses on behalf of the man and the youth locked up in prison. I am their appointed agent. I am their messenger… 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.” (Excerpt from “The Sharp and Bright Sword” in Collins Bay Diamond, July 1955)

The Centre of Criminology Library at the Okanagan College has been acting as stewards of a collection of Canada’s penal press. The collection includes over 500 individual issues published across 8 provinces and 29 institutions. 

Canada underwent a period of prison reform between 1935 and 1960 that shifted focus within the penal system from punishment to rehabilitation. This change was largely attributed to the influence by the 1938 Royal Commission Report on Penal Reform in Canada, also known as the Archambault Report.  

The report proposed changes to the criminal justice system that included changes to crime prevention, sentencing, prison labour, education, and recreational conditions for prisoners. Amid these changes, the first Canadian penal press publication was proposed in 1948.  

The penal press was intended to improve prisoner morale while offering the potential to act as a tool to reach the larger prisoner population. Two years later, in 1950, the first Canadian penal publication titled Tele-scope was established in Kingston Penitentiary.  

Following the establishment of Tele-scope, eight more publications were launched across Canada within a year. Despite the original intent of providing entertainment and communication within penal institutions, subscriptions opened to the public and between institutions.  

The publication of penal press quickly became a tool for prisoner activism, advocacy, and communication with the general public. Since the first publications, there have been upwards of 100 separate penal publications produced by Canadian prisoners in federal institutions.  

The Gaucher/Munn Penal Press Collection is a website run by Dr. Melissa Munn (PhD) and Bob Gaucher. The purpose of the website is to provide an open access archive of newsletters and publications written and produced by incarcerated people in Canada. Although the collection emphasizes Canadian materials, it also archives materials from international newsletters.   

According to Dr. Adam Quinn, scholarship and research on prison publications, like prison newspapers, is limited, and radical prison newspapers and their connection to social movements is an understudied area.  

“Prisons are often imagined as spaces that are completely removed from the rest of society, but they are in fact porous,” wrote Quinn. “Similarly, prisoners are often imagined as confined, separated, and politically immobilized. In some regards, these are accurate reflections of the conditions that incarceration imposes.”  

Gaucher and Munn have identified three central functions of the penal press which refute the notion that prisoners are politically immobilized.  

These include providing an outlet for inmates to document and share their lived experiences within carceral systems; facilitating communication between prisoner populations, administration, and the general public; and the ability to advocate for institutional change while emphasizing issues of concern for prisoner rights.  

As such, “Prisoners still communicate, still circumvent restrictions, and still find ways to resist incarceration and participate in public discourse,” wrote Quinn.  

Entries in the collection include prisoner reporting, poetry, personal writing, and reflections. The entries provide a critical look into the lived experiences of Canada’s prisoner population.  

The collection is accessible online at penalpress.com and easy to navigate by date, topic, and theme. Entries have been further organized into topics like women’s facilities, Indigenous activism, secure psychiatric facilities, and external publications.  

According to Kate McQueen, who previously worked with the Prison Journalism Project, prison newspapers have been documented in North America since the early 1800s. “The first true prisoner-run newspaper came out of Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn.. It was called the Prison Mirror, and that was in 1887. So ever since then, newspapers have flourished, sometimes with outside support, sometimes without it,” said McQueen.  

According to McQueen, one of the drivers of prison publications has been people’s need for information in order to “live successful lives.” She said, “That’s true no matter where you live. So, you know, misinformation, disinformation are problems inside prison as well as outside prison.”  

“I think for prison newspapers, their first audience is there – the people in the facility with them – but prison newspapers also want to reach out to an outside audience. They want to, you know, poke holes in the wall, so to speak, and having a publication is a great way to do that.”  

Although not formally considered a penal press, Cory Cardinal, a formerly incarcerated advocate, poet, founder of Inmates for Humane Conditions, and member of Sturgeon Lake First Nations, documented his experience living in Saskatchewan’s carceral institutions. In 2011, he shared his 100-page manuscript with Dorian Geiger, a then-student with the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network.  

“I know in my mind I can write a novel — I’ve got the tools to do it,” he told Geiger,  “It’s just about sitting down and having the stability to do it. It’s going to be a totally different perspective than anyone’s ever seen. It’s coming from an inmate, it’s coming from a guy that’s lived on the streets, it’s coming straight from the cell.” 

Years later during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardinal became a prisoner activist, raising awareness for the conditions in which prisoners were forced to endure during the pandemic in Saskatchewan. Shortly after release, Cardinal passed at the age of 38.  

He was praised by Sherri Maier, the founder of Beyond Prison Walls Canada, for his “…really influential [way] in doing things, getting those Skype visits for inmates, especially in Saskatoon.”  

Maier continues, “You look at any of his poetry and stuff, he is published in a lot of places, and I think that’s what he will be remembered by. It’s a huge loss for all the advocates.” 

Tags66

Comments are closed.