Transcribing the “CellDweller Journal” with the American Prison Writing Archive

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As part of our community engagement opportunity in “English 10-714: Freedom and Imprisonment in the American Literary Tradition: A Multidisciplinary Approach,” students recently transcribed part of the “CellDweller Journal” essay series archived at the American Prison Writing Archive (APWA) hosted by the Hamilton College Digital Humanities Initiative.  By transcribing the essays, students enhance access to the archives by making the essays searchable by keyword.

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Landing page of the American Prison Writing Archive

The APWA is the only digital archive that centrally collects the unmediated perspectives of incarcerated people in the U.S.  The growing archive includes writings from people in prisons in New York, Arizona, Nevada, California, and elsewhere.  According to the Collection Description, the APWA is “a place where incarcerated people can bear witness to the conditions in which they live, to what is working and what is not inside American prisons, and where they can contribute to public debate about the American prison crisis.”

The APWA’s goal of connecting people across prison walls was strongly appreciated by students in the class. Reflecting on our class blog on the experience of transcribing APWA writings, students expressed their eagerness to feel a sense of connection with those writing from prison. One student wrote, “This is what I had been waiting for all semester! We finally received the opportunity to read and transcribe essays written by people in the prison system.” Another expressed that she “was incredibly excited to have gotten the opportunity to not only read, but go so far as to transcribe a letter from someone incarcerated.” Our class is very grateful to Doran Larson, Project Director of the APWA, for providing this opportunity to engage closely with the perspectives of people who are incarcerated.

Using this Transcription as Close-Reading Worksheet, students reflected on the significance of their experiences transcribing essays by Levert III “Sékou” Brookshire, an inmate at the Arizona State Prison Complex.  Brookshire, aka “CellDweller,” composed a series of essays employing striking formal features such as single quotation marks, metaphors, and rhetorical questions in order to convey pointed statements on broad issues such as education and white-collar crime.

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An essay archived at the American Prison Writing Archive, titled “Fractured Mirror of Society” by Levert III “Sékou” Brookshire

In their blog posts, many students noted the unique style, both visually and in terms of voice, that distinguishes the CellDweller series.  According to one student blogger, “The fact that the works are handwritten creates such a deep and personal connection with the letter and easily allows me to [empathize] with its narrator”; another wrote that CellDweller’s “unique literary style” powerfully expresses the “agency [of] the author.”

Many students appreciated the sense of connection and identification with the author that is enabled by the transcription process.  “As a Latina,” blogged one student, “I have always felt oppressed. The dominant culture and race in the United States has never felt welcoming to me and I have often felt like I am resisting the oppressor even when I just go to school… When I first read Cell Dweller’s essay ‘Swimming Against the Current’ I felt a strong sense of connection with the author. The essay talks about resistance and perseverance found in those who have been oppressed unjustly… [B]eing allowed to transcribe the essay and be part of the process to get these words born within walls built by the oppressors out to the free public was an empowering experience.”

Other students reflected that transcribing the essays offered specific and unique insights that did not present themselves upon initial reading. Wrote one student, “In transcribing this story for the APWA, I had to engage more with the text by not just looking at the words but at each individual letter, making sure I transcribed it exactly the way the author meant that letter… This process really encouraged me to slow down and take my time with reading certain pieces.”

Some student bloggers emphasized the significance of specific formal features that struck them during transcription: “As I began the transcription process, I began to notice certain stylistic choices that the author made. The use of quotation marks and commas definitely struck me as unusual, but only because they were used in such abundance… looking at them made me read more closely… simply by attempting to comprehend the reasoning behind the placement of each quotation mark and comma. In some cases, I believe the quotes were used to emphasize sarcasm while other times it marked what the author believes to be a social construct with no reasonable foundation.”

Still other students were struck by broad meanings that were revealed in the transcription process. The student who transcribed part II of CellDweller’s “Fractured Mirror of Society” essay remarked that her understanding of the essay after transcribing it differed vastly from her understanding upon her initial reading. “The implication… that those imprisoned are reflections of those on the outside, albeit broken, albeit warped; that was the understanding that I took away after my first reading. That is the assumption, of course, that prisoners are the broken ones…. However, as I transcribed, as I wrote with my fingers what he wrote with his, I came to realize that outside society, not prison, is where the fractures occurred.”

As an instructor, I was both moved and impressed by the insights and reflections that students conveyed in blog posts about their transcription experiences.  One student provided a fascinating study of the implications of the CellDweller’s handwriting based on her own experience growing up in El Paso.  In a post titled “What Does It Mean To Write Hood?” the student wrote,

“In El Paso there are many gangs and a lot of ‘at risk’ youth. In middle school and high school students start getting into gangs or start to affiliate with them in some way or another officially or not. Being involved in this kind of lifestyle kids start talking and writing differently. The style kids adopt is very square and blocky, usually in all caps. The penmanship Cell Dweller was using was just like that style… Teachers would not accept assignments written in this style. They would make us rewrite the assignments or give us zeros if we didn’t turn something in that looked more decent and less aggressive. I was trained to discredit anything written in this ‘hood’ style.”

The student blogger continues that although she initially discredited the essay as a result of this training, she was soon drawn in by the philosophical depth of the CellDweller’s voice and message.  The student concluded,

“The style I was taught to discredit deserved so much more attention and credit for being so enlightening. The ideas that Cell Dweller presented were resonant of those I find in my philosophy text books. How in the world could someone who writes like this be so intelligent and thoughtful when the society I grew up in told me they couldn’t be? I was forced to look at the essay in a different way and thus look at myself and my upbringing more reflectively.”

Thanks again to the APWA for providing us with such a meaningful and unique public humanities opportunity! As a class we are glad to help enhance the accessibility of the CellDweller essay series.

 *All student bloggers in the class, including those cited above, completed this Social Media Privacy Agreement at the beginning of the semester.*