We’re thrilled to announce that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), through its Research and Development Program, has granted funding to a new Ithaka S+R project to explore how the stories of people who are justice impacted can best be preserved and develop strategies to make these first-hand experiences of mass incarceration accessible.

In partnership with the Justice Arts Coalition (JAC), “Preserving Their Stories” will explore how creative works generated by people in prison circulate beyond prison walls, investigate the types of organizations that collect and receive materials created by people in prison, and document the training and resource needs these organizations require to preserve such materials and make them accessible.

A pressing need for documentation

Almost half of all Americans have experienced incarceration within their families, making apparent that the impacts of the criminal legal system expand far beyond those currently in prison. Yet mass incarceration in many ways remains invisible in the archival record and national memory. Prisons physically isolate the people inside their facilities from the outside world, and even following reentry, the stigma attached to incarceration continues to suppress the documentation and sharing of experiences.

Bringing light to the first-hand experiences of people in prison could play a valuable role in de-stigmatizing incarceration and making progress toward necessary reforms. There is therefore an urgent need to preserve and increase access to the creative works documenting mass incarceration by those directly impacted.

The “Preserving Their Stories” project seeks first to understand how works created by people in prison—stories, essays, theater productions, visual arts, etc.—circulate beyond the prison and second, to determine how they might be ethically collected and preserved.

Steps toward preservation

While a handful of initiatives have recently begun to collect materials created by people impacted by incarceration, anecdotal evidence suggests that incarcerated artists and writers frequently entrust their work to grass roots organizations and volunteers in prison arts programs, books to prisons programs, and higher education in prison programs. Because these organizations are not traditional “memory institutions,” they face specific challenges in preserving the materials placed in their care and, as a result, creative works are often left to languish in boxes and volunteers’ basements.

Ithaka S+R will build relationships with these organizations and explore the preservation and access challenges they face. Through this project we will also document the training and resources that could help these non-traditional memory institutions better meet those challenges. These findings will be published in an issue brief on the Ithaka S+R site.

Building partnerships

The core work of this project will be connecting with organizations that receive and care for materials created by people in prison. We are especially interested in the needs, challenges, and solutions found among books to prisons programs, prison arts programs, and higher education in prison programs, though are open to other relevant organizations. We will also seek to connect with creators who are currently or formerly incarcerated. The research will be conducted through semi-structured interviews, and we are interested in gathering perspectives on a variety of related issues including preservation and conservation, ethical stewardship, digitization, partnerships, and public outreach. In the latter stages of the project we will host a focus group to workshop solutions and concept test potential interventions. If you or your organization would be interested in participating in the project, please contact Kurtis Tanaka at kurtis.tanaka@ithaka.org.

Looking ahead

It is our hope that the evidence collected and relationships built during this project will lead to broad impacts at the local and national levels:

  • Community organizations will be better able to care for materials entrusted to them
  • Access to and dissemination of works created by incarcerated individuals will lead to more nuanced conversation about the nature and role of incarceration in American life
  • Humanities scholars will benefit from a much enriched pool of resources that document fist-hand experiences with mass incarceration

Finally and most importantly, this project seeks to center the voices and narratives of those who have experienced incarceration in humanistic inquiry and public discourse.

Through this project we will conduct the research, learning, and relationship building needed to inform future development and implementation work. Our larger vision is to build on this foundation to develop training and resources for community organizations that are collecting materials from people in prison.

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We thank the National Endowment for the Humanities for their funding of this project. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at https://www.neh.gov/