Poetry, Politics, and Prayers: Digitizing HLS’ Prison Periodicals | Magazine

In the basement of the Harvard Law School is a box containing the pages of the Angolite – an award-winning prison newspaper covering topics from prison policy to the societal cost of mass incarceration. The pages are filled with block print illustrations and showcase poetry written by prisoners alongside policy briefs and legislative debate. After decades in storage, the pages are crumbling, acidic, and improperly cataloged. And it’s not just the Angolite — HLS’ basement houses several prison periodicals housed in Harvard’s archives, and when Jessica N. Chapel found them, they were in dire need of preservation.

In 2019, Chapel, former Harvard Law School librarian and archivist for digital projects, began working on a project called “Prison Newspapers” to digitize and submit publications by prisoners to the American Prison Newspapers – a larger project by the organization Reveal Digital — that solicits periodicals published by incarcerated people over the last 200 years from all 50 states, representing penal institutions of all kinds, with special attention paid to women-only institutions.

“There’s just something in all of these newspapers that just really speaks to that very human impulse to tell stories, to share information, to connect with each other. I don’t know that I can really say there’s one thing in particular that just stands out to me. It’s the whole endeavor,” Chapel says. “These are people whose bodies bore the weight of law.”

The Mentor. Vol. 57, 1955. Charlestown, Mass.: Massachusetts State Prison.

The project came to life after a researcher put in a request to digitize two copies of the Colony, a twice-monthly prisoner-run periodical focused on the intellectual lives and rehabilitation ambitions of MCI-Norfolk. It was one student’s curiosity to learn more about the life of Malcolm X — who was imprisoned in Norfolk Prison during the Colony’s publication — that sparked Chapel’s interest in looking for other prison newspapers in the HLS archives.

“At that point, I got very interested in them, and I started doing some research. For instance, with the Colony, I discovered that the Law School library had the most complete run of this prison newspaper. The library had even more issues than the Massachusetts State Archive does,” Chapel recalls. “I was like, ‘Let’s digitize this.’”

Bill H. Comstock, the head of Harvard Library’s imaging services, worked on digitizing HLS’ collections for American Prison Newspapers, converting the titles to files that could be added to the Harvard archive.

Comstock and his team’s efforts represent a continuation of imaging services’ work to share and preserve Harvard’s archives. In recent years, imaging services and Harvard Libraries recalibrated their approach, looking towards digitization as a means of amplifying underrepresented perspectives.

“The Harvard Library did go through a process where we explicitly called out the goal of making more diverse voices available through what we acquire and what we make accessible online through digitization,” Comstock says. “And so, the Law School’s effort to digitize those prison newspaper titles is just a realization of acting on that call for the library.”

The Mentor. Vol. 57, 1955. Charlestown, Mass.: Massachusetts State Prison.

For Chapel, though the efforts were a great start, they weren’t enough — she felt the prison publications deserved priority and a wider reach, beyond HLS. Taking matters into her own hands, through the recommendations of a colleague, Chapel reached out to the project curator of Reveal Digital, a group that seeks to publish open source libraries representing “voices of dissent” that have been overlooked.

“[HLS] is a great community, but it is one that’s very much on the side of law for power, law as a tool of power,” Chapel says. “This, in some ways, felt like an opportunity to just correct the imbalance a little bit, to make accessible the words and experience of the powerless and the people who, at a place like Harvard Law, too often, just do not have a voice or a representative. Here were their records, their words, their art.”

Chapel left HLS in spring of 2023 to take a job with the Boston Public Library. As the HLS Library looks to fill Chapel’s position, the digitization project has stalled.

“I know that everyone at the Law Library and Harvard Library has a lot of priorities and a lot of commitments,” Chapel says. “But, I do hope that this is a project that does not get forgotten.”

—Magazine writer Maeve T. Brennan can be reached at maeve.brennan@thecrimson.com

–Associate Magazine Editor Ciana J. King can be reached at ciana.king@thecrimson.com

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