When the San Quentin News was revived nearly ten years ago, a staff of five put together a four-page issue and distributed it to 5,000 inmates inside the prison. Today, the newspaper has a circulation of 30,000, distributed at 36 prisons across the state as well as to individual inmates in 43 states. In addition to news stories and features, the paper includes an original crossword puzzle and cartoon, book reviews and columns.
On Jan. 26, the San Quentin News staff, volunteers and supporters in and outside of the prison celebrated the publication of its 100th edition in a sun-drenched hall at the Protestant Chapel. The pews were removed for the event and replaced with small tables, decorated with shiny, gold and blue centerpieces. Outside guests and friends of San Quentin News mingled with blue uniform-clad inmates and prison officials. More than 200 guests attended the event.
Editor-in-Chief Richard ‘Bonaru’ Richardson opened the event by honoring Warden Ron Davis with a plaque for his support of the newspaper. The warden shared a story of how he had visited the newsroom during his first week on the job three years ago and the staff had spoken about wanting their
to be distributed in every prison in California. Later while attending a wardens’ meeting, Davis convinced the other wardens to allow the newspaper inside their prisons.
Richardson also told his story of a childhood bereft of love and a criminal history that began when he was just 10 years old. “Today, as I stand before you as editor-in-chief of a newspaper that so many people are invested in, I am humbled,” he said. “I am humbled because every story, every achievement, every milestone, every accomplishment, every step the San Quentin News makes is because of you.”
San Quentin TV staff member Eric Phillips also spoke about what his involvement with the newspaper has meant to him. “We never thought that we could be here,” he said. “It shows that we can go anywhere.”
According to Associate Editor Kevin D. Sawyer, the paper first began in the 1920s as a newsletter under the name Wall City News. It was shut down once in the mid-1930s and then again in the mid-1980s when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoner-run newspapers could not be censored by prison administrations. In April 2008, then-warden Robert Ayers Jr. decided to take a chance and revive the newspaper because he saw the benefit of inmates sharing information. In the last decade, the newspaper has faced numerous challenges including the print shop shutting down, limited funding, one 45-day suspension and the rushed deadlines required following lockdowns.
Sawyer also spoke about the advisers, donors, volunteers, fellow prison media, who helped the staff reach the milestone. In 2014, the San Quentin News won the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. (The whole staff are official members of the SPJ.) “We’ve become, in effect, a professional journalism organization,” Sawyer said.
Some of the men who have worked for the newspaper have become criminal justice advocates after their release. The crowd applauded when Sawyer spoke about the zero percent recidivism rate of former staffers.
The joy in the room, however, was also accompanied by an undertone of grief as the community mourned the absence of former editor-in-chief Arnulfo T. Garcia. He died in a car accident last September, two months after he paroled. Garcia’s family represented him at the ceremony.
After the staff showed a tribute video in his memory, Richardson said he wouldn’t talk about Garcia for fear of becoming emotional. “But he would want us to move forward and I will move forward with him with me,” he said.
During the ceremony, former warden Ayers issued a challenge to the staff to be a news agency of integrity, challenge the status quo, change the public’s perception of criminal justice and change the prison mentality. “You need to do that, you need to push them,” he said. “A medium like the San Quentin News can be a conduit for change.”
New Managing Editor Jesse Vasquez shared upcoming projects that the staff are working on to do just that. He spoke of an upcoming forum with law enforcement, a newsletter for the juvenile justice system, and a program to bring awareness to prison culture.
In an interview after the event, Marisa Rodriguez, assistant district attorney and director of community relations for San Francisco County, expressed a desire to further strengthen the relationship between the district attorney’s office and the people incarcerated within the state. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon was one of the first to participate in the district attorney forums started by Garcia in 2012.
“We want to continue the dialogue so the criminal justice system is working not only for society, but also for those affected by it,” said Rodriguez.
Also in attendance was Richard Alden Feldon, Director of Programs and Board Member of the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation which granted $250,000 to the San Quentin News over the past two years. The funding has allowed the newspaper to act on its long-term vision to expand readership.
“We empower world-changing work and we think San Quentin News is a world-changing newspaper,” said Feldon.