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  • Work & Hope and the West Virginia State Penitentiary1
  • Katy Ryan and Yvonne Hammond

Beginning in October 1919, a monthly magazine titled Work & Hope was published at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville.2 Work & Hope contained articles, poems, short stories, and drawings as well as reprinted articles from local and national newspapers. Warden Joseph Z. Terrell announced the inaugural issue in the 1920 biennial report: “Last October the inmates started the publication of a prison magazine which now has something like one thousand subscribers, and we believe it is doing a lot of good, with no cost whatever to the state.”3 In the following biennial report, Terrell described the magazine as the “first attempt at vocational training in the West Virginia Penitentiary” and reported that it had continued “to grow in size and circulation and is now rated as one of the best magazines of its kind. Practically all of the articles are written by inmates.”4 The Work & Hope office also produced a promotional booklet for the penitentiary. The illustrated Souvenir focused on facility improvements and celebrated local culture and history.5

“Devoted to the Interests of Prisoners Everywhere,”6 the first issues of Work & Hope were printed by hand and, in the words of one writer, “gotten out under very difficult conditions.”7 The publication started at twelve pages and grew to forty-eight pages before scaling back to thirty-two. Advertised as “THE PRISONER’S ONLY VOICE TO YOU,” the magazine was available for ten cents a copy or one dollar for a year “(seventy-five cents for inmates).”8

When you read WORK & HOPE You get straight Prison dope;   A magazine that’s different you’ll say. So let there be no pause   Be one to help a good cause,     Send in your subscription today.9 [End Page 29]

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“Cover.” Work & Hope 7, no. 11 (Aug. 1926).

[End Page 30]

The February 1929 issue reprinted letters from subscribers, including one who wrote that her family enjoyed Work & Hope “cover to cover, and would not be without it.”10

The writing tended toward qualified optimism, and the title of the magazine “work and hope” echoed the Anabaptist phrase, Arbeite and Hoffe.11 Some issues explored themes based on seasons or holidays—Mother’s Day, Christmas, New Year’s, and Fourth of July. Staff editorials (called “penatorials” until January 1928) commented on politics, legislation, religious values, and administrative changes. A penatorial in April 1927 began with a quote from Dante—“Abandon Hope, ye who enter here”—and ended with a variation on Emerson: “ ‘Hitch your wagon to a Star’—and Hope.”12

Prison publications can operate as a controlled fuse, a way for state administrations to project an image of transparency and progressive reform while the carceral system steadily expands. A Work & Hope editorial admits, “Of course it should not be expected that a prison magazine tell all that occurs in prison, there are obvious reasons why this could not be done.”13 Officials have almost complete control over content in prison publications, and contributors must walk a fine line between telling the truth and maintaining access to the public. At any point these publications can be discontinued or destroyed. E. M. Novak rightly observes, “Even where they survive, prison newspapers are a truly ephemeral form of alternative media.”14 Work & Hope, for instance, is not among the two hundred titles of prison publications in the impressive appendix of James McGrath Morris’s Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars.

Despite constraints on content and distribution, prison publications have managed to communicate, to preserve information, and occasionally to thrive. By the end of the nineteenth century, at least fifteen states had prison newspapers.15 Hundreds of prison publications were created in the twentieth century. In Morris’s words, these newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines “have afforded an opportunity for men (and less often, for women) deprived of all the rights most people take for granted to voice their ideas, thoughts, and version of the truth without interpreters.”16 For two years, between 1929 and 1931, a women’s column appeared in Work & Hope, a rare record of women’s...


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