Prison journalism is gaining popularity in California and America, including San Quentin.
For several years, inmates from coast to coast have been receiving instruction on how to write as journalists for prison publications.
Several prisons within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) already have newspapers and newsletters. Others have contacted the San Quentin News to inquire on how to start their own publication.
“An inmate publication means any journal, magazine, bulletin, newsletter, newspaper, or other material published by inmates,” the California Code of Regulations, Title 15 states. “Inmates may participate in the publication and distribution of an inmate publication only with the institution head’s specific approval.”
The San Quentin News has been training inmates to write as journalists for more than a decade, leading to creating the Friday morning Journalism Guild class. Advisers John Eagan and Yukari Kane have been instrumental in cultivating the development of many emerging journalists.
The road has been opened for San Quentin, but there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States. Many of these prisoners have media restrictions placed upon them, so getting their voice out is limited. However, volunteers and organizations on both ends of the country are assisting them.
On the East Coast, University of Massachusetts journalism professor Shaheen Pasha volunteered in 2013 to teach inmates journalism at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections in Northampton, Mass., according to the Daily Collegian.
“There were so many of them (students) that stuck out to me while teaching there,” Pasha told the Collegian. “They were all so smart and so professional.
“Right now, I am looking at other places that are already doing the type of work I am interested in, like the San Quentin newspaper.”
Earlier this year, she spent two days at the San Quentin News office, meeting its inmate journalists and learning about San Quentin’s media center.
The CDCR has several little-known newspapers and newsletters published by prisoners, volunteers and staff.
Here & Now is published at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. California State Prison Solano has Solano Vision. At Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, there’s Chucky. The women at the California Correctional Women’s Facility have Fire Inside. High Desert State Prison has its High Desert Sun (and the Seagull). North Kern Valley State Prison publishes The Pioneer and Mule Creek State Prison has the Mule Creek Post.
In 1974, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the opinion in Martinez v. Procunier: “When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment… It is the role of the 1st Amendment and this Court to protect those precious personal rights by which we satisfy such basic yearnings of the human spirit.”
“Prison periodicals, in many instances, have provided that medium,” wrote James McGrath Morris in his book Jailhouse Journalism. “They 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. Truth is always a precious and elusive thing but more so in prison.”
Prison newspaper and magazine publications in the U.S. numbered around 250 in 1959, but fell to fewer than a dozen by the new millennium, according to a 2014 article in The Nation.
A handful of prison publications survived, such as The Angolite at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, The Echo at Texas’s Huntsville prison, and The Prison Mirror founded in 1887 at Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. Some of The Mirror’s seed money was reportedly bankrolled by the Younger Brothers of the Jesse James Gang.
Many remaining prison publications are relatively new. America’s first-known prison newspaper, Forlorn Hope, was published in 1800, “born in the squalor of an 18th century debtors’ prison,” McGrath wrote.
“The dearth of prison publications is ironic in that the inmate population grew to record levels in the 1990s,” Morris wrote. “…(T)he success of prison officials in suppressing confrontational prison periodicals, are certainly part of the explanation for the absence of a strong prison press.”
The San Quentin News was founded in 1940 by Warden Clinton Duffy. The last time it was shut down was in the late 1980s. Before it was revived in 2008 by then-Warden Robert Ayers Jr., it was the winner of the American Penal Press award for the Best Prison Newspaper in 1966, 1967, 1972 and 1981. In 1968, the News won the Charles C. Clayton award, named after the man who was reportedly the first person to teach journalism inside of a prison. He was also the founder of the award competition sponsored by the Southern Illinois University Department of Journalism from 1965 to 1990.
According to a story written by Pasha in the Nieman Reports, “San Quentin State Prison is a good example of an institution that has found a balance between giving the inmates a voice and maintaining stability at the prison.” She added that the paper “is widely seen as a model for prison journalism and innovation, through its administration’s willingness to engage in rehabilitative programming and educational opportunities.”
In 2014, the San Quentin News was presented with The James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for “accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances.”
In a recent Journalism Guild class at the News, several inmates said the reason they transferred to San Quentin is because of its newspaper.