J o u r n a l  o f  P r i s o n e r s  o n  P r i s o n s
"My Regional Reception assessment Centre Handbook informs me I will be here for ten to fourteen weeks, during which time I will be evaluated, assessed, analyzed, tested, probed, and profiled. A team of IPOs, CO2s, psychologists and unit managers will collect, collate, graph, and interpret the data. They will determine risk factors, crime cycles, pen placement, treatment programs and how much fibre I will need in my diet. It could be argued, and convincingly, that this is the evolution of penology."
-Stephen Reid, from JPP Vol. 11 (2001)

The Prisoner As Ethnographer: The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons

  • Once the journal receives a manuscript, it is given an initial review. This is to determine if it is generally suitable for publication, using the submission guidelines and discretion of the reviewer and editors as a reference.

  • If the article is accepted for review the author is informed, and the manuscript goes through a peer review and editing process.

  • Board Members examine the articles, providing comments and suggestions which are then sent back to the author for consideration. The process continues until the article is accepted by both parties.

  • If the article is initially rejected, the author is informed with reasons why and is often encouraged to re-submit the manuscript for consideration.

  • The editorial group has maintained the independence of the journal by depending upon the contributions of editorial group members and contributors to produce it, and upon subscriptions and university sales to finance its production and distribution. In serving as a legitimate academic forum for prisoners, we thought that maintaining our independence was of primary concern. We were already aware of the problems of prison writers mingling with staff and administrators of the prison-industrial complex and how this led to compromise, misrepresentation, and absorption (Mathiesen, 1974: 13-36). We also wanted to assure contributors that they could feel free of the censorship and publication problems that shadow prison writers and intellectuals.

  • The JPP publishes essays of commentary and analysis of 'criminal justice' issues by prisoners and former prisoners. The work of associated non-prisoners (fellow travelers) has been included as "Responses" to particular volumes or as co-authorship. Contributors to the JPP - such as Jo-Ann Mayhew, Little Rock Reed, Gayle Horii, Jon Marc Taylor, John Perotti, Ronald Del Raine, Victor Hassine, Gerald Niles , Paul Wright, and Charles Huckelbury - all helped in the composition and production of these volumes, whether through general discussion or direct involvement. Indeed, with the assistance of Lisa Morgan, Little Rock Reed edited Volume 4:2 (1993, on special handling units) from within Lucasville (Ohio) Penitentiary; Gayle Horii co-edited Volume 5:2 (1994, on the imprisonment of women) shortly after being paroled, and Jon Marc Taylor, imprisoned in Missouri, co-editing Volume 13 (2003), on educational issues. These are "joint" productions.
The accounts and representations of the experience of incarceration and carceral culture differ significantly from that found in most academic studies, state reports and research documents, and from that of the dominant mass media and attendant public discourse.

The JPP: A Contextualization in Academia

The 1990's were characterized by the massive growth of prison populations and the expansion of penal control and carceral institutions throughout Western societies (Garland, ed., 2001; Weiss and South, eds., 1998). Though the extent of this expansion varies according to the society, the trend is best represented in the alarming growth of the prison industrial complex in the U.S.A, where there are now more than two million prisoners, and in the equally unsettling growth of prison populations in the Netherlands, the former bastion of social tolerance and liberal criminal justice policy (Downes, 2001). In this decade, the conjunction of the rhetorics of retribution and deterrence defined public and political discourse, and the resultant social and criminal justice policy of most Western nations. Previous societal and legal concerns for proportionality between the crime (social harm) and the punishment were often submerged by these punitive demands, as expressed in "the war on drugs", mandatory sentences (e.g., "three strikes" legislation), longer sentences with reduced parole opportunities, and harsh prison conditions. These developments were accompanied by the growth in the industrialization and privatization of penal control. Despite the academic debate over the extent of these changes and their significance (Burton-Rose et al., eds., 1998; Christie, 1993; Currie,1998; Garland, ed., 2001; Parenti, 1999; Taylor, 1999), the growth of the prison-industrial complex produced real changes in most jurisdictions. The impact of these changes on the carceral commodity, the prisoner, has often been extreme.

The analysis and commentary of prisoners in the JPP represent a counter-inscription to these developments and the arguments that legitimize them. Located firmly within the long-established tradition of prison literature (See Gaucher 1999; JPP Vol. 10: 1 & 2) they collectively represent the prisoner-intellectual's responses to the current conjuncture, as informed by the experience of criminalization and incarceration. Many contributors have spent over twenty consecutive years in the "belly of the beast" and their understanding is grounded in first-hand experience of the hard realities of these changes (See Hassine 1995; JPP Vol.6:1 & Vol. 9:2).

Working as a professor of criminology for the past twenty years, I have been repeatedly struck by the incongruity between the accounts and analysis of prison intellectuals and those of state and academic authorities. The prison, as described and analyzed by contemporary prisoners, does not resemble the image of the "accredited penal institution" of the American Correctional Association (ACA) (see Cahill et al., and Reed & Denisovich) nor the model institution suggested by the Correctional Service of Canada's (CSC) guiding "Mission Statement" and CPAC (Canadian Public Access Channel) television presentations (see Arbour; 1996). It most certainly differs from the punitive lobby's depiction of mollycoddled prisoners lounging in "club fed" prisons as commonly portrayed by right-wing political commentators (Harris, 2002) or the mass media.

In both research and teaching, I have found that this contradiction is a good site from which to approach, read, and understand the prison and its relationships. If we are to understand the prison institution, and the culture and order it contains, then we must investigate the positions, relationships, and "sense"/accounts of all participants in this complex organization, especially those of the silenced majority-the prisoners. To make sense of the dynamic complex organization of the total institution (i.e., prison) (Goffman, 1961), it is necessary to explore the everyday routines, fears, and concerns of prison life and prison culture.

Prison writers can part the mists that shroud carceral life and cast light upon the realities of the pains of imprisonment and the formative power of the prison. They can map the changes produced by penal policies and enlighten us as to the consequences that are seldom part of the dominant discourses. A random sample of the vast array of literary and artistic work by prisoners immediately indicates that the experience of criminalization and imprisonment is disorienting, threatening, and total. The quest for relief from its claustrophobic sameness often takes the form of writing, painting, or some other creative "escape" (see Cohen and Taylor, 1973), and in those quiet moments the landscape of the prison flows from their pens and paintbrushes with acuity, insight, and pathos.

This is the prison I have encountered, with its constant noise, smells, and atmosphere of sterile control. How can we possibly make sense of those we criminalize and the end results of incarceration without listening to their accounts of being processed as a carceral commodity? Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed interest in the expertise and understanding of prisoners and former prisoners by academics. For example, current books by Victor Hassine (1996, 1999); Mumia Abu-Jamal (1997); Daniel Burton-Rose, Dan Pen, and Paul Wright (1998); and Laurence McKeown (2001) are being widely used in university courses. The recent Convict Criminology initiative of John Irwin, Stephen Richards and Jeffery Ian Ross (2002) promises to add to the debate in the United States. In Canada, recent CSC initiatives such as LifeLine indicate that at least some CSC managers are aware that the understanding and expertise acquired by prisoners through years of incarceration do have value and utility.

-Robert Gaucher, excerpts from "The JPP: An Ethnography of the Prison Industrial Complex in the 1990's," In Writing As Resistance.