As San Quentin News celebrates its 100th published edition since the newspaper was revived in 2008, the paper’s history is not well known to most of its readers. The News has a predecessor. It’s Wall City News, a publication started at San Quentin in the 1920s. It ran until the mid-1930s before it ceased operation.
Several years later, Warden Clinton T. Duffy had an idea. In his book, The San Quentin Story, he wrote, “The grapevine throbbed with weird gossip … I decided that the obvious answer, if we could swing it, would be a regular prison paper.” He implemented a plan and “The first edition of San Quentin News, hand-set and printed on gaudy green paper, was published Dec. 10, 1940.”
According to a 2012 article in The Nation magazine, “New laws and policies ballooned prison populations, strained budgets and led to an increasingly hostile attitude by the public toward prisoners. Journalism behind bars nosedived. From a high of 250 in 1959, prison newspapers and magazines today number less than a dozen.”
Top is the SQ News team from the printshop, including cameraman, Press Room Leadman, Composing Room Leadman, typesetter. Far right is Bill Little, one of the Voc Print instructors. At the top is “Little Joe” or “Crazy Joe” Morse
At different periods throughout its history, the News has been suspended or shut down for different reasons, once after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled prisoner-run newspapers could not be censored by prison administrations. In the mid 1980s, the paper shut down and that interruption lasted more than 20 years. It was the last California prison newspaper.
As decades passed, San Quentin News was all but forgotten until Warden Robert Ayers Jr. decided in April 2008 to revive the out-of-use publication. He started by recruiting adviser John C. Eagan, who was later joined by Joan Lisetor, who had worked with the newspaper in the 1980s, and Steve McNamara. They’re retired journalists, editors and publishers. They were tasked with the responsibility to work with inmates who knew nothing about journalism.
In June 2008, Editor-in-Chief Kenny Brydon and several staff writers produced the first edition of the monthly San Quentin News inside the prison’s print shop in more than two decades. Five-thousand copies of a four-page, black ink on goldenrod paper were distributed inside San Quentin.
To increase capacity and depth of stories, the News created a journalism guild to teach other inmates how to write using the Associated Press journalistic writing style.
By 2010, a new editor-in-chief, Michael Harris, co-founder of Death Row Records, was at the helm. That same year, the print shop closed due to budget cuts and nearly sealed the newspaper’s fate. But adviser McNamara arranged for the printing to be done at Marin Sun Printing, a company he once owned.
To print 5,000 newspapers each month wasn’t free, so Harris paid for it out of his own pocket. But soon after Harris left San Quentin, his money went with him. Because of that, McNamara created the Prison Media Project and applied for a grant from Marin Community Foundation to help fund the paper as a nonprofit using a fiscal sponsor. Donations and grants from the Annenberg Foundation and Columbia Foundation became the tipping point.
In 2011, then Editor-in-Chief Arnulfo T. Garcia and the staff had a vision to expand San Quentin News’ reach to inmates in all California state prisons. By 2013, with the guidance of the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, a plan was developed for expansion of the newspaper to make it accessible to inmates throughout the state.
San Quentin News San Quentin News was making progress. But early in 2014, the administration suspended the paper for 45 days for what was officially deemed “circumventing the editorial process.” During the suspension, however, the paper won The James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Those events gave the newspaper national media exposure in publications such as The New York Times, The Nation, The Daily Californian, Marin Independent Journal, San Jose Mercury News, and the Columbia Journalism Review. The attention didn’t go unnoticed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The CDCR sent three staff members from its press office to meet with the News staff and its advisers. At the time, some staff thought the paper was going to be shut down. But the CDCR’s objective was far from closing or controlling the newspaper. In their words, they wanted to “make it better.”
With a dedicated team of advisers—who work behind the scenes meeting with staff, editing, proofing, emailing, and making negotiations outside — the newspaper continued to expand. Today, it is a 20-page, color publication. It has a staff of 15 men who write, edit, photograph, design and layout the paper, and create content for the website, www.sanquentinnews.com.
With recent grants from The Logan Foundation, the News now prints 30,000 copies. With the help of Warden Ron Davis the newspaper is now distributed to all 35 California state prisons as well as individuals in 43 other states, and several hundred donors.
News advisers John C. Eagan and Yukari Kane are primarily responsible for strengthening the Guild’s writers with weekly lessons and sitting with the men to provide one-on-one instruction. In the last four years, San Quentin News’ Journalism Guild writers have contributed more than 600 bylines to the newspaper.
After all the writing, editing and proofing is done, CDCR Public Information Officer II Krissi Khokhobashvili reviews every article, holding her office to its word to make the paper better. Then San Quentin Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson reviews the completed paper before the newspaper goes to press and is released on the internet.
San Quentin News serves as a bridge between incarcerated citizens and the outside community. Its mission statement states: “San Quentin News reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice.” This has been done by hosting forums with district attorneys, lawyers, judges, teachers, and a congresswoman to present a different viewpoint on incarceration, rehabilitation and reentry.
Since its comeback, nearly a decade ago, San Quentin News has resumed its status as an award-winning newspaper with award-winning journalists.
By the early 1980s, San Quentin News had won the Penal Press Awards multiple times as the best publication in its category, according to The Nation.
In 2014, the prestigious Society of Professional Journalists awarded the newspaper The James Madison Freedom of Information Award for outstanding reporting under exceptionally difficult circumstances.
In 2016, Associate Editor Kevin D. Sawyer received The James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Then, in 2017, the Society of Professional Journalists presented Senior Editor Juan Haines with the Silver Heart Award for being a voice for the voiceless.
Newspaper adviser Professor William J. Drummond went to the White House to receive The 2015 John W. Gardner Legacy of Leadership Award. In his acceptance speech, he credited San Quentin News for reviving his faith in journalism.
In 2015, with the assistance of volunteer Nancy Mullane, host and executive producer of The Life of the Law, members of the News became the first inmates in the United States to establish a satellite chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists inside a prison. The initial membership fees to join SPJ were paid by Paul Cobb, publisher of Post News Group.
Other volunteers contributed more than 1,800 hours to help San Quentin News in 2016 and over 2,000 hours in 2017. Counting its nine advisers, the News has more than 40 volunteers who come into the prison to help with the newspaper.
For example, Drummond created a journalism class in the prison’s newsroom, where dozens of students from University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism have assisted inmate writers. The first UC Berkeley students began volunteering in 2013 after Drummond taught a journalism class at the prison in 2012.
In 2016, reporters from the California State University East Bay’s student newspaper, The Pioneer, visited the prison newsroom. They now periodically reprint stories from San Quentin News in their student-run newspaper.
After hiring development manager Lisa Adams through its fiscal sponsor Social Good Fund in 2017, the newspaper staff is now able to focus attention on news content and increasing its donor base. This is because the state doesn’t pay for the paper’s printing, distribution or website management.
Since its emergence nine and a half years ago, San Quentin News has documented the impact of mass incarceration in California and around the nation. The newspaper is the single source of information on prison policy, rehabilitation and reentry for thousands of inmates to learn about what’s happening with the Three Judge Panel, Realignment, healthcare reform, Propositions 36, 47, 57, the death penalty, and more.
Locally, the paper has covered events inside the prison. Where the mainstream corporate media has to rely on press releases from the prison administration to report, the News staff are literally boots-on-the-ground reporters. It has become the instrument for the United States to see what rehabilitation looks like inside prison.
For example, by covering the Prison University Project graduations, GED and vocational graduations, The Last Mile entrepreneurship program, Code.7370 computer program, Get on the Bus, the annual Health Fair, Day of Peace, and visits by the Golden State Warriors, the News provides the outside community a different perspective on what can and does take place in a prison.
Moving forward, the News plans to publish a quarterly magazine, Wall City, which commemorates the publication that predates San Quentin News. It is also entering the realm of digital publishing to reach the global community.
San Quentin News staff
Two wardens with a vision, several advisers, dozens of volunteers and inmates determined to write real news on what takes place in the evolving penal system are shifting opinions about incarceration with the intent to leave their world a safer place for everyone to live.