It is a well-known fact amongst the San Quentin News staff that Warden Clinton T. Duffy wanted people to voice their opinions about whatever subjects they felt comfortable addressing in prison. That was the seed of opportunity that we were given at the time to increase public safety and achieve social justice.
However, conflict arose between San Quentin News staff and the administration that took a legal turn for the worst. Eventually the newspaper went out of existence.
In 2008, Warden Robert Ayers Jr. didn’t agree with having the newspaper sidelined and reinvigorated the San Quentin News, which started our mission to change the prison culture.
While the mainstream media underlines the latest violent incidents that occur at Folsom, Soledad or Corcoran State Prisons, San Quentin News covers stories about the 73-year-old woman or man who has earned a GED, maybe even a college education.
The more success stories San Quentin News highlighted, the more people wanted to be a part of that change and positive growth. We hope this change led to a safer society once these people return home.
Michael Harris said it best, “The human beings that are encapsulated inside these prison walls have the power to change themselves, as well as influence others in positive ways. Some of us will never get out and others will. What has become the obvious is that we can learn from our mistakes, and so can others, if we, as a community, are brave enough to share in this undertaking.”
Harris knew then that we as a community can influence positive growth, but recently the term influence has been given a negative connotation, nonetheless, that’s exactly what we wanted to do. In order for us to change the prison culture we must influence those people who believe that they cannot change for the better to do so.
In 2010, former Governor Arnold Swartzenegger enacted sweeping budget cuts across California that closed down many prison vocational programs and educational classes.
Being that San Quentin News was printed and distributed through the vocational print shop, our mission ended when the print shop shut down at the end of 2009.
But Michael Harris and Arnulfo Garcia did not want to give up on San Quentin News and the fact that information can change a prison culture with stories of rehabilitation. In a meeting with Acting Warden R.K. Wong, Lt. R. Luna and Principal Ted Roberts, they made a deal to keep the newspaper up and running. However, the deal provided that if they could provide the content and layout of the paper on one computer they could continue to produce the San Quentin News. They would also have to print the paper in the print shop without the shop being fully up and running.
Trying hard to keep that positive voice of inmates alive, Harris and Garcia were running around San Quentin struggling to keep the San Quentin News afloat. Just when it looked like A.W. Wong was about to pull the plug, San Quentin News produced its first edition of 2010.
However, the threat of shutting the paper down wasn’t over. While printing the January-April edition, we were told that we could no longer utilize the abandoned print shop to print, and we lacked the resources and funds to print the newspaper elsewhere.
Once again, Harris came to the rescue. Agreeing to pay for the newspaper out of his own pocket, Harris talked with San Quentin News Adviser Steve McNamara to facilitate a deal for printing the newspaper off-site.
The San Quentin News was back up and running with no threats ahead, Harris made sure that stories of rehabilitation flooded each issue.
Eighteen months later, Harris thought he had earned his release from bondage. After spending more than 23 years behind bars, the parole board agreed that Harris was rehabilitated and found him suitable to be released back into society. However, on October 11, 2011, federal agents picked Harris up and transported him to a federal prison.
Many of the San Quentin News staff and advisers were confused, disappointed and were in disbelief. With all the rehabilitative efforts, groups and programs Harris had either started or been a part of we couldn’t believe he was not being released.
Garcia said that Harris “was committed, compassionate and a great leader.” He strongly advocated “not to define a person by his past, but by the person’s desire to change his past anti-social behavior and to develop pro-social habits.”
Many of us wanted Harris to go home with the skills he had learned in prison and become instrumental in communities throughout California and further. But knowing that so much positive energy is sitting behind prison bars really proves that the criminal justice system is still broken and needs to be fixed.
San Quentin News will continue to advocate for those people without a voice, what works in the criminal justice system, what doesn’t and how we can join together to fix it.