“Zines provide individuals with an opportunity and a medium to tell their stories, share their ideas, and engage in creative expression."
-Maddie Moran, Digital Humanities - College of the Arts & Sciences Fellow 2022/23
Zines, which began to emerge as early as the 1930s, are small, self-published pieces that are usually produced using a photocopier. The principal goal of publication is not profit, meaning that there are often fewer than 5,000 copies of a given zine in circulation at any time. Intended audiences tend to be niche groups, so the content of a zine is usually of interest to a specific portion of the population. Zines provide individuals with an opportunity and a medium to tell their stories, share their ideas, and engage in creative expression (Purdue University: Libraries and School of Information Studies, University of Texas Libraries, UNC University Libraries).
Santa Clara University Archives & Special Collections holds the Tenacious Zine Box Set: Art & Writings By Women in Prison, a complete run of all 44 issues from the start of the zine in 2002 to its end in 2020. The zines contain poems, images, essays, letters, and other contributions created by women who were either incarcerated or formerly incarcerated at the time of their submission. Victoria Law, an American author and prison abolitionist, spent two decades compiling the writings of incarcerated women in a quarterly publication (fall, winter, spring, summer).
Many women from across the United States contributed to the zines. Because the project began in Oregon, a large portion of the included works are written by women incarcerated in the Oregon prison system. However, the zines also offer a variety of works by women from all around the U.S. and from different correctional facilities within a given state. For example, several women discuss their experiences in one Oregon facility before being moved to another, from where they continued to publish subsequent pieces. The women whose stories and experiences are contained within the zines come from varying backgrounds and range from young adults to seniors. The women wrote letters, essays, and poems to submit for inclusion in the zines, often detailing experiences within the prison system as well as offering autobiographical accounts of their own lives. They also compiled lists and statistics in order to raise awareness about issues such as deplorable living conditions, violence within prison, and staff misconduct. Some created word searches, artwork, and images that revealed the struggles of being incarcerated.
Throughout the series of zines, certain themes and authors repeat frequently. In the Mother’s Day issues, themes of motherhood and parenting from within prison are particularly prevalent. Tragically, themes of staff and administrative misconduct, as well as lack of support for mental and medical health care, arise often and are written about by many different women. In a large number of the works, women also allude to their own personal journeys to find peace inside of prison and to overcome the multitude of obstacles they face daily.
The presence of repeated authorship develops intimate portraits of the ways that the women experience incarceration. For example, in just the first 14 zines, there are 30 separate works by Barrilee Bannister and numerous others written about her. As the pieces progress through the years, Bannister develops her voice as a writer, becoming as an activist and advocate for all incarcerated women. Bannister’s tenacity and unwillingness to give up or back down were both inspiring and endearing. Readers can follow her story until they learn of her release from prison, all through the zine. She gives intimate and personal accounts that offer detailed and emotional descriptions of prison conditions, daily life, and critique. Likewise, there are several works by Yraida Guanipa, a mother of two boys whose dedication to her family was unwavering throughout her period of incarceration. Readers share intimate moments with Guanipa, during which she recalls reuniting with her sons and husband. Guanipa went on to create a podcast with the intention of raising awareness about the unjust prison system in the United States and the adversity that incarcerated women must overcome.
Victoria Law is an American freelance journalist, author, activist, speaker, and prison abolitionist. She was born in Queens, New York in 1977. Her experience as a journalist working with incarcerated individuals at Rikers Island Prison initially sparked her interest in researching and writing about mass incarceration. Throughout her career, she has written a number of notable books, including Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women and Prison By Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reform, that largely focus on the idea of dismantling the prison system and addressing the harmful effects of prisons on individuals and communities. As a prison abolitionist, Law believes that prisons harm society more than they help it. She views prisons as obsolete and asserts that they must be replaced with a system that emphasizes rehabilitation rather than punishment. In addition to addressing the prison system, abolitionists like Law seek to reform the greater society through education and a revised method of addressing the root causes of mass incarceration, such as homelessness, addiction, and mental health crises.
Law first began working on the Tenacious Zines in 2002 after she was approached by several women who were incarcerated in Oregon. They expressed their desire to create a forum for female prisoners to share their stories and experiences following rejection and a lack of responses from mainstream media platforms. Because many incarcerated people do not have access to printers, copy machines, sufficient amounts of paper, and even writing utensils, Law recognized the need to amplify the marginalized voices of women in prison. She collected submissions via email and through the postal system and chose to display them in printed booklets with colorful covers. For Law, the physicality of the zines as well as their colorful covers are important because they attract attention and are small enough to be carried on one’s person and easily shared with others. Tenacious zines are banned in some prisons, yet, despite efforts by prison staff and administration to censor women’s contributions, Law has managed to compile, publish, and distribute writings and other works by a variety of women from across the United States over the course of two decades.
There is an ongoing project to catalog and index the Tenacious Zine box set and make that information publicly available. The project is part of the SCU Digital Humanities - College of the Arts & Sciences Fellows program. This research guide and the spreadsheets will continue to be developed by subsequent participants in the program.