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Printing in Prisons

This website explores the use of printing presses at Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) from the 1890s through the prison’s closure in 1970. Originally installed as a type of prison industry, to print forms, pamphlets, and books for the city and state, the presses were also used to print newsletters and magazines edited and written by incarcerated men. This site focuses on two publications in particular: The Umpire (1913-18) and Eastern Echo (1956-67), both of which are almost entirely extant in single fragile copies held at the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. Through curated exhibits, a collaborative research blog, and open access datasets, this website aims to generate more research and public interest in these rare, unknown materials and the unique stories they contain.

Screenshot of project splash page.

This website investigates penal publishing as a precarious site of resistance. Since 1800, hundreds of newspapers written by incarcerated people have been printed in U.S. prisons, ranging from underground zines, discreetly published in a shop’s downtime, to widely-circulated magazines. Sometimes radical, often subversive, this “penal press” forms a powerful counter-archive to the wash of mundane government forms, non-profit booklets, and envelopes printed for pennies on the dollar by prison labor, often without any mark of their origins.

Our primary case study is Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, a panopticon-style prison built in the 1830s (and now a museum). The world’s first true penitentiary, it was also one of the first prisons to set up a print shop where those inside learned to set type, pull presses, and bind books. Through curated exhibits backed by a fully searchable index of articles, this site tells the unknown stories of Eastern State’s incarcerated editors, writers, and printers.

This project began in Spring 2020, in Whitney Trettien’s undergraduate “Introduction to Digital Humanities” course. That semester, students generated and worked with archival data from the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESP), in collaboration with ESP archivist Erica Harman, as a means of learning digital humanities research methods. Although the sudden switch to remote learning in March 2020 put many plans on hold, this course resulted in two student-led and -designed digital projects: Blundin’s Blunder?, an interactive Ren’Py game exploring the questions faced by incarcerated women right after the prison’s opening, and a website documenting the use of quantitative methods in analyzing sex crimes, race, sentencing, and pardoning in the Admissions Books held at the American Philosophical Society. During this time, the copies of The Umpire held at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site were also brought to the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Image (SCETI) at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries to be photographed.

The Covid pandemic put any further work on hold until Fall 2022, when Whitney Trettien teamed up with Cosette Bruhns Alonso, Cassandra Hradil, and Andrew Janco in the Research Data and Digital Scholarship team at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries to begin the process of producing this website. SCETI photographed the copies of Eastern Echo held at ESP in Spring 2023, while research assistant Lauren Kim began indexing the digital copies of The Umpire, building on an earlier index generated and produced in FileMakerPro by researchers at ESP. An alpha version of this site was launched in June 2023.

Made possible by:

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