Wanted: reporters for an award-winning newspaper. Long hours, lousy pay ($24 a month). Requirements: ability to write coherently and be a prisoner in the California Prison at San Quentin.
Back in 1982, that is how an article “Convicts print the inside stuff” depicted San Quentin News in the San Jose Mercury. And, that’s where Joan Lisetor helped inmates, including Brian Shipp, put out a weekly newspaper.
“Joan worked hand-in-hand with the editors and writers of San Quentin News,” Shipp said. “She’d always say, the first paragraph has to grab the readers, or they’d go to somewhere else. Everyone took her comments to heart and utilized them in writing the paper.”
Today, Lisetor gives San Quentin News the same attention she did 35 years ago.
“I enjoy seeing people work together,” Lisetor said. “In journalism, you have to think clearly. You have to get your thoughts in order, and you have to know how to work with people.”
Lisetor said after coming to San Quentin for a graduation in the 1980s, the men found out that she had journalism experience. They asked her if she would help in producing San Quentin News. After she got permission from Warden George Sumner, she began volunteering.
“I didn’t have too many expectations,” Lisetor said. Referring to the inmates, she added, “They’d already been producing the newspaper. After a while, I was very much a part of the everyday operations.”
Shipp added, “We took a certain pride in putting out the newspaper. One of our jobs was being a liaison for Death Row prisoners, letting them know what was happening in the prison.”
Lisetor said she was most proud in 1981, after San Quentin News won first place in the American Penal Press Contest for the best printed newspaper of prisons around the country.
After the U.S. Supreme court ruled, prison officials could not censor inmate publications in 1984, California officials decided to shut down California inmate publications.
Prison newspapers and magazines around the country went from a high of 250 in 1959, to fewer than a dozen today, according to Nation magazine.
State sponsored inmate newspapers remained out of print for nearly a quarter century until in 2008, then Warden Robert Ayers, Jr. decided, to bring San Quentin News back as a way to cut down the rumor-mill and give inmates the chance to disseminate reliable information to each other.
Lisetor got back into the action after she met and had a conversation with corrections officials, lieutenants Sam Robinson and Rudy Luna while attending an event for a local middle school.
“I told them that I was an advisor to the newspaper years ago and they asked me if I’d come back to help and I agreed,” Lisetor said.
Shortly thereafter, Lisetor began coming back to the newsroom.
Lisetor said the biggest difference between the old newsroom and the new one is that in the 1980s, there were no computers, and the newspaper was printed inside the prison. She added, “I’ve been coming in for so long that nothing surprises me. It is a peaceful, friendly, productive place. I always say that I feel safer here than anywhere else.”
Lisetor’s journalism experience reaches from a dozen years as a reporter and feature writer for the Marin Independent Journal, a couple years as an investigative reporter for Crittenden News Service and two years teaching media relations at the Tamalpais District Adult and Community Education program and teaching journalism at College of Marin. Lisetor received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1983 from San Francisco State University.
“Journalism picked me. I always wanted to work for a newspaper as long as I can remember, and I enjoy the satisfaction from volunteering,” Lisetor said. “It keeps me in touch with journalism.”
San Quentin News, Executive Editor, Arnulfo T. Garcia, said, “She brings a unique quality of journalism experience to the newsroom. She’s always ready to sit with writers to make the story flow and doesn’t hesitate to ask for source material when she questions someone’s writing.”
Editor-in-Chief Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, added, “She brings the authenticity of what San Quentin News is, and she never lets us forget the daily struggles of what it takes to put out the paper.”
Lisetor’s civic and community involvement is vast.
She currently is a member of and has served as President of Marin Shakespeare Company and Northern California Peace Corps Association, while she is a member of Marin Women’s PAC, Marin Forum, National Peace Corps Association, Lowell High School Alumni Association and SFSU Alumni Association.
Lisetor’s son, Scott is a lighting director who lives in Honolulu.