Zines are broadly defined as ‘DIY’, self-written, self-published publications that often deal with subjects thought to be marginal or niche. Over the years, zines have covered subjects such as feminism, punk music and culture, sci-fi, and politics.

Philipp Messner, Image from Flickr

For my research I have chosen to define collective women’s prison publications as ‘zines’ for a number of reasons.

For starters, many scholars of collective male prison writing have struggled with a definition. For example, Russell N. Baird describes how ‘the content of many [of the publications] is contrary to the norm. Newspapers may be loaded with literary material, and magazines may be full of news. Mechanical facilities, rather than content, often seem to determine the form.’[1]

This uncertainty over whether a publication is either a magazine, newspaper or periodical, is why ‘zine’ is an effective term for collective prison writing. Scholars of zines provide definitions that are applicable to material created within prison, despite never overtly referring to the form itself.

Janice Radway, Stephen Duncombe and Michelle Kempsom, for instance, define zines as self-created collections of art and literature that represent thoughts, experiences and opinions that are otherwise ignored or misrepresented by the mainstream media. Duncombe describes these self-identified communities as ‘subcultural ghettos … fascinate[d] with the margins.’ [2]

Although none of these scholars make any reference to prison zines in their writing, their definitions are still applicable. The same subcultural, outsider environment can be found within prisons, and the desire for self-representation and self-expression is important within prison-zine, collective communities.

By theorising women’s prison zines as a genre for the first time, this project shows incarcerated women dismantling the stereotypes that label them as ‘fallen women’ and bad mothers, and demonstrates their attempts to self-define through zines by forging a complex protest aesthetic that grapples with race, sexuality, motherhood, education, violence, and wider social change beyond penal reform. These are texts that go beyond mere informative description to use poetry, artwork and creative writing to form an artistic and literary response, in an attempt to inspire, rally support and encourage revolutionary action.

For more information see:

  • Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. Cleveland: Microcosm Publishing, 2014
  • Janice Radway, “Girls, Zines, and the Miscellaneous Production of Subjectivity in an Age of Unceasing Circulation”. A lecture presented by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Writing and the Literacy & Rhetorical Studies Minor. Minneapolis. Speaker Series No. 18, December 1st, 2000
  • Alison Piepmeier, Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. New York: New York University Press, 2009


[1] Russell N. Baird, The Penal Press (Evanston: Nothwestern University Press, 1967), 12.

[2] Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (Cleveland: Microcosm Publishing, 2014), 13.

COPYRIGHT of Olivia Wright

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