When inmates at Kingston Penitentiary decided in 1950 to start the KP Telescope, their very own newspaper, they already had a printing press and resources to start producing it. But when inmates across the street at the Prison for Women created their own publication, called Tightwire, in 1970, it was a different story.
“We had to do everything from scratch,” says Heather Evans, who contributed poems and artwork to Tightwire while in the Prison for Women between 1984 and 1990.
The women, Evans explains, typed each issue’s articles on a typewriter, then photocopied and stapled the pages together themselves. Tightwire contained original art, poetry, essays, reports, op-eds, and news from other institutions and the outside, along with health and programming PSAs for prisoners.
North American prisoners began producing their own publications in the 1950s and distributed them in prisons and to the general public. Contributors sold subscriptions and ads to support production. As
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But archived copies of Tightwire and other publications, maintained by former prisoners and their allies, remain important resources for learning about the experience of incarceration and the movement for prison abolition.
“It was very personal and extremely subjective,” says Evans. “It was our own experiences that went down on those pages, that we allowed other people to see.” This helped cultivate mutual respect among the prisoners inside the Prison for Women, she says: “You got to see what another person experienced on some level, as a child growing up in the foster system, as a child growing up in the residential-school system. They shared, and that brought us closer together.”
According to Evans, the Prison for Women’s management censored Tightwire significantly. When seven prisoners died by suicide in the late 1980s, Evans says, they had to sneak notes out to the public to draw attention to the crisis. “They wouldn’t want the whole truth getting out there,” she says.
For the past 10 years, Melissa Munn, a professor at Okanagan College, in British Columbia, has been building a digital collection of penal-press issues at Penal Press — A History of Prison Within. It now features more than 1,500 PDF copies of issues from institutions across North America, including 31 issues of Tightwire.
“The women who wrote for Tightwire were politically conscious, what people would now call woke,” says Munn. “They were proposing interventions and alternatives like harm reduction and safe supply for drug users that were largely being ignored by both the correctional apparatus and the public at large.”
Munn says that prisoners have always been the most accurate and effective writers and thinkers on prison systems, even if they haven’t received credit in the mainstream “Prisoners are not just passive recipients of penal policy and action but have always been active in their resistance to it and active in suggesting change,” says Munn. “The women who were involved in the publication of Tightwire were activists and resisters and people who deeply contemplated incarceration and penal justice overall.”
Inmates at such men’s prisons as Collins Bay Institution and Kingston Penitentiary had a significant audience for their publishing work: the former’s C.B. Diamond, Munn says, had 700 subscribers in March 1953; the latter’s Telescope had 1,500 paid subscribers by June 1958.
By contrast, Munn says, Tightwire’s writers were incarcerated women who had largely been erased from the public eye: “It gave women a forum to be heard and to demand attention to their issues. Tightwire gave them a voice to agitate for change that they would not have had otherwise.”
Ann Hansen was incarcerated at the Prison for Women from 1984 until 1992; while she didn’t contribute to Tightwire, she holds a deep respect for the former zine and the friends who produced it. “It gives you a bit of an eye into the soul of a lot of prisoners,” says Hansen, who is a founding member of the Prison for Women Memorial Collective, a group of former prisoners advocating for a memorial garden and community space on the grounds of the institution, which closed in 2000. “You don’t get that perspective from people who haven’t been to prison, to really understand why a person is maybe dysfunctional in the average working or educational stream of society.”
Hansen, who’s been a prison-abolition activist for 47 years, says that, in the past few years, she’s noticed increased awareness around the struggles that prisoners face. But, she adds, prisoners are still looked down upon — even by potential allies.
“People still assume that prisoners are weak and impulsive and need to be helped,” says Hansen. “When you’re in prison, you realize just how strong and resilient the women in prison are. They’re used to dealing with hardship. They’re not easily frightened and are not stupid, regardless of their education.”
Tightwire ceased printing in 1995, one of a crop of penal presses that disappeared over the back half of the 20th century. Today, only a handful — such as Out of Bounds, from British Columbia’s William Head Institution, and The Mallard, from B.C.’s Mission Medium Security Institution — operate across Canada. According to Munn, most were diminished by censorship, a lack of resources, and outdated tech. With larger prison populations and strained inmate-committee funds, the production of penal presses has dropped off.
Evans and Hansen are glad that people can look at issues of Tightwire and learn directly from their friends and fellow survivors of Prison for Women, in their own words. Evans remains proud of the work she and the other Tightwire contributors were able to accomplish, summarizing its ultimate value simply: “It was just … It was ours.”
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