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A peek behind prison walls

[Kim Bell]
Kim Bell stands in front of a display of prison newsletters that are part of the ongoing exhibit Prison Sentences: Penitentiary Literature in Kingston at the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library. (University Communications) 

Jo-Ann Mayhew spent years writing in support of prisoner rights, and was particularly concerned with the experiences of incarcerated women. After her death in 1998, her work was recognized by women's groups across Canada as well as a Gemini-winning documentary on her life, The Voice Set Free.

Mayhew’s achievements might be considered particularly noteworthy, given that she completed most of her advocacy work from behind bars. While Mayhew served seven years at the Prison for Women in Kingston, for the murder of her husband, she regularly contributed to a growing body of prison literature. The current exhibit in Queen’s University Library Special Collections provides the Queen’s and Kingston community a rare glimpse at what was on her mind, the minds of other prisoners, and a little bit about what life is like within prison walls.

Prison Sentences: Penitentiary Literature in Kingston, is currently on display in the W.D. Jordan Special Collections and Music Library. The exhibit focuses on prisoner writings from the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. The newsletters in the collection and exhibit include Tightwire, produced by the Prison for Women (or “P4W”, as per the newsletter), the Joyceville Journal, the C.B. Diamond (out of Collins Bay Institution), and Kingston Penitentiary's newsletter, Tele-Scope, the first newsletter produced in a Canadian penitentiary.

Mayhew was editor of Tightwire from 1986 to 1989, and also wrote for the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP), a prisoner-written, academically-oriented and peer-reviewed, non-profit journal. Mayhew wrote both as a means of personal survival, and to expose the experiences of women in federal prison. Mayhew shared her stories through prison literature, and also used her strong writing voice to tell the stories of others. One example from the Penitentiary Literature collection at Queen’s is a Tightwire review of the Saint John Regional Correctional Centre, which credits the writing to Mayhew, as described by Val Saunders.

While Mayhew told her own stories and those of her fellow inmates, she recognized her advantages and subjectivities. In one of her articles she commented:  “I have told the story slantways. I am editor of the prison magazine because I am a well socialized, middle-class white woman, conditioned and educated to master the placating word. I am also mistress of an idealistic love for one dead man, two living children, the Atlantic Ocean and a country called Canada. It is not a grandiose social view but it is my own and the anger I feel at having this view of living torn from me is intense.”

Mayhew’s narrative is just one of the many fascinating stories that can be found within the pages of these prison newsletters.

“It is wonderful to see all the many different ways the community is engaging with this collection,” says Kim Bell, curator of the exhibit. “Students in Professor Steven Maynard’s HIST 400 class are writing papers based on the newsletters, and each one has approached the project from a different angle. Professor Otis Tamasauskas and his art students have also stopped in to view the silk-screened covers. This is exactly how we want students to feel about special collections: That these are teaching collections they can engage with in their research.”

The exhibit has been extended to May 1, due to the community interest. An audio tour is available online.