Criminal Ancestors: The Penal Press

Kingston Penitentiary
Source : By P199 – Own work, Public Domain,

Do you have a criminal ancestor that was jailed in Canada? Did you ever wonder what life was like for them? I stumbled onto a great website this week that needs sharing. The Penal Press is a website that has issues of prison newsletters from across the country.

Prison newsletters were huge in the latter half of the 20th century. At one point there were 250 different publications throughout North America. The Penal Press website has amassed a collection of individual issues that you can view as PDF downloads. Maintained by Professor Melissa Munn from Okanagan College and a team of students, it is a work in progress. They are always adding to the site, so keep checking back to see what\’s new. The focus on their site is Canadian publications, but they will accept publications from anywhere.

I looked at several of them from different institutions and the information they have is really interesting. There are articles relating to prison life, jokes, and editorials about national and world events outside. You can find articles to help inmates deal with addiction, family issues, and finances. There\’s club news, religious news, gossip columns, and calendars of events. I even found upcoming menus and nutritional information for prison food. Lots of them had a \”Letters to the Editor\” section, sports sections, and sections showcasing inmate poetry. If your ancestor was involved in the newsletter in some way, they are always mentioned as part of the newsletter staff. But here\’s some of the other little gems I found:

  • The Hilltop Journal from Westmoreland Institution had a section called Dialogue (Us vs. Them), that gave short bios of inmates and guards.
  • The Midnight Express from the Edmonton Institution had an article listing the sports banquet award winners. They also had individual player stats from the fastball teams.
  • The Off the Wall from the Saskatchewan Penitentiary has a directory of prison clubs and groups. Each has the club or group\’s board position holders (chairman, secretary, treasurer,etc.). For example, in May 1988 Joe Kostka was the secretary of the Joint Jesters Drama Club.

Now, these are not keyword searchable. However, the issues themselves are not many pages, so a little scanning through the pages won\’t take long. There are four different ways to search through what they have:

  • Newsletter
Sorted alphabetically by newsletter name, there are over 100 different publications listed, with a count of how many individual issues available beside it. There are many that have only 1 issue available, but the C.B. Diamond from Collins Bay has 99 issues digitized.
  • Date
Here you can search by year. They have issues that cover the years 1949-2016.
  • Institution
Here you can search by Institution name. Several of the prisons had more than one newsletter, or the name may have changed over time. Beside each institution name is the number of newsletters available to look at.
  • Topic
Here you can look for articles relating to a specific topic of interest. Topics available include \”Aboriginal Prisoners\”, \”Education or Vocational Training\”, and \”Sports\”. A good percentage of available issue have been indexed by topic, but not all. Those that haven\’t been have been put under the topic category of \”Un-indexed Issues\”. As of writing this, there were over 400 individual issues in this category.
If you would like to find out more about prison newsletters in general take a look at Dr. Robert Gaucher\’s The Canadian Penal Press: A Documentation and Analysis\” here. Near the end of it he has made an index of Canadian Institutions and the names of their publications.
If you would like to contact Professor Melissa Dunn about the project to digitize these publications, her contact information is on the Penal Press website as follows:

Melissa Munn
Department of Sociology
Okanagan College
7000 College Way
Vernon, BC, V1B 2N5
Tel: (250) 545-7291 (X. 2222)
Fax: (250) 545-3277

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