This is a difficult time for the San Quentin News. But it’s not difficult for the reasons that plague nearly every other newspaper in the country. Those newspapers are in trouble because they are running out of readers, who increasingly switch to the internet for their information.
The San Quentin News has plenty of eager readers. Its current problem is that the staff inside the prison’s walls cannot gather for staff meetings to plan and run the paper and cannot easily connect outside the walls to get the paper printed and distributed to all of California’s other 35 prisons and to the hundreds of other people who usually receive it.
The reason, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic that hit San Quentin harder than perhaps any other place on the planet. The sad fact of San Quentin’s infection rate and lockdown has been covered extensively. Meantime, the paper’s ongoing issues depend on stories written from inside and outside the prison, then laid out and prepared for printing and distribution by former staff members who earlier had been released from San Quentin, plus volunteer advisers who help the process just as they did inside.
But the core value and mission of the paper remains the same as it says on Page 1: Written by the Incarcerated – Advancing Social Justice.
That’s unique. Across America and the world there are a vast number of publications focused on criminal justice, but almost none of them are actually produced by incarcerated persons. At the SQ News it is these people who decide what to write and how to write it — how to approach and improve the system that governs their lives. And how to raise the money to pay for it — the California prison system provides computers and an office, but that’s all. Financial support for printing and distribution comes from outside the prison system.
In time, when COVID-19 recedes and San Quentin is again fully operational, the SQ News will be back as before, entirely the product of its incarcerated staff. Between now and then, it’s a good time to run through the astonishing transformation of the newspaper.
The roots of a paper at San Quentin go back to the 1930s to a short-lived publication named The Wall. It disappeared until the 1960s when a new paper called the San Quentin News emerged. It flourished with local prison news until the authorities grew sufficiently upset by its approach and forced its closure.
Then came an enlightened warden, Robert Ayers Jr., who in 2008 wanted to revive the paper, mainly as a conduit for in-prison news. He wanted freedom of expression — “not just the warden’s newsletter” — but he had no idea how dramatically it would grow.
Ayers didn’t know how to publish a newspaper and none of the incarcerated men in his care knew how. So, he recruited three retired newspaper people and tapped four inmates who were willing to have a go at it. The first issues were 5,000 copies of four pages printed on leftover orange paper on an ancient sheet-fed press and distributed within the prison. Then, to Ayers’s amazement and delight, the paper took off. Today it is this:
• Seventeen incarcerated staff members plus seven veteran newspaper advisers plus another six volunteers from outside the walls work in a dedicated media center.
• A dozen or more incarcerated men learn reporting skills in classes offered by the SQ News Journalism Guild. Successful students move on to staff positions created by the frequent parole of staff members.
• A rate of zero recidivism among paroled newspaper staff members.
•A newspaper staff of four persons without prior experience has blossomed into a large group of accomplished writers whose work has also appeared in outside publications such as The Washington Post.
• Usually 30,000 copies of a 20 to 24-page monthly paper are printed with color on a newspaper press.
• Distribution is to all 35 California prisons, plus county jails, plus some prisons in other states and also to contributing individuals and officials focused on criminal justice.
• A significant annual budget is supported by individuals and a range of foundations including the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the San Francisco Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
• Laudatory articles frequently appear in major outside publications ranging from the New York Times, L.A. Times and Politico, plus coverage on national TV.
• A website presents current and earlier printed issues in searchable form, plus video.
• There is membership in the California News Publishers Association that includes all of the state’s major newspapers.
• There is membership by staff writers in the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter.
• A Twitter account carries links to SQ News articles.
• San Quentin News Forums: These groundbreaking events pair groups of incarcerated men with groups of officials involved with criminal justice who previously had no personal experience inside a prison. The Forums began in 2011 with the department of San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón and have expanded to include district attorneys from throughout the Bay Area and the United States, judges, school teachers, defense attorneys and police departments, most recently the San Francisco Police Department.
What you’re reading now is a stop-gap version of the San Quentin News. So, hang in there. We’ll be back with the real version as soon as COVID-19 allows it.