Prison newspaper history illustrates the power of
the press to be a vehicle for freedom and change
By Kate McQueen
Wall City Adviser
In early 1800, when an impoverished New York attorney named William Ketelas found himself locked up in a debtor’s prison, he took an unconventional approach to securing his release. He founded a newspaper.
Called Forlorn Hope, Ketalas’s paper is widely considered the first newspaper produced behind the walls. It devoted its pages to ending the imprisonment of debtors and generally promoting prison reform. Surviving archival copies indicate that the paper ran for less than a year. But the paper’s end corresponded with passing of the first federal legislation on bankruptcy, which encouraged a more liberal approach to debt forgiveness. Ketelas was a free man by September of that same year. Coincidence? In his book Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars, historian James McGrath Morris entertains the idea that it might not be.
Forlorn Hope may have been the first prison publication to directly influence a person’s release from imprisonment. But it certainly wasn’t the last. One of the most heartening side effects of a healthy prison press has been its ability to be, quite literally, a vehicle for freedom.
Two stories from two different parts of the U.S. illustrate this power. The first takes place in mid-century Iowa. In the summer of 1948, Tom Runyon joined Lloyd Eddy as the co-editor-in-chief of Iowa State Penitentiary’s magazine, Presidio. A bank robber serving a life sentence, Runyon knew the pain of long-term confinement intimately. He wanted to use his platform to draw attention to the plight of Iowa’s lifers, of which there were plenty, thanks to the use of heavy mandatory minimums.
“Eddy and I hit the lifer problem time and time again, never letting up,” Runyon wrote in his memoir In For Life: A Convict’s Story. The Iowa governor seemed open to suggestion; by the end of 1948, he had commuted the sentences of fourteen men to “terms of years,” making them eligible for parole.
One of Runyon’s strategies was to write a column called Leaves from a Lifer’s Notebook. The holiday column of 1949, Christmas Behind the Eight Ball, had particular sway. The piece told the story of Ole Lindquist, a Swedish immigrant who had been given a life sentence in 1909, at age 19, for killing a police officer during a bar fight. Then 40 years into his term, Lindquist had almost no contact with the outside world — not a single visitor and no letters in 20 years. Still, as Runyon showed in colorful detail, Lindquist maintained his dignity and remained, where it counted, much like free Iowans.
As Runyon explains in his memoir, several state newspapers reprinted the story; a radio version ensured national coverage. As a result, Lindquist received hundreds of Christmas packages and letters filled with support. And Presidio found many new outside subscribers. The greater message was also received; readers wrote to Gov. William S. Beardsley, and not long after, he requested that the parole board review the cases of all lifers in the state. Lindquist was paroled in 1952 and married one of his newly discovered pen pals. Runyon acquired a national platform through Collier’s magazine, The New York Times and eventually his own memoir, although did not live to see his own release. He died of a heart attack in the penitentiary, in 1957.
A story with similar results appeared two decades later in The Angolite, a magazine produced at Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially known as Angola. Conversations With the Dead was written by the magazine’s longtime editor Wilbert Rideau, who, as coincidence would have it, was serving life for the same crime as Runyon. The article profiled six so-called “living dead” — men who remained at Angola over decades because they did not have the means or connections to advocate for release. One of their subjects, Frank “Cocky” Moore, holder of Louisiana’s oldest active prison number, was illiterate and had no family outside to help him with the clemency process.
Rideau rendered a deeply moving portrait of these men’s situation. Readers responded in kind. As with Lindquist, Moore’s case was widely publicized by outside media and in 1980, Gov. Edwin Edwards commuted Moore’s sentence. He was released shortly thereafter. The five other men featured in the article also gradually regained their freedom.
Rideau had to wait another 21 years to go home. In the meantime, he transformed The Angolite into a powerful journalistic force. For Conversations with the Dead, the American Bar Association gave Rideau its 1979 Silver Gavel Award for “outstanding contribution to public understanding of the American system of law and justice.” It was the first time in the association’s history they honored an incarcerated writer. Rideau went on to win more high-profile prizes, including the George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards, and several National Magazine Award nominations.
Runyon and Rideau were writers of great ingenuity. But their work was only as good as the freedom their publications commanded. In his memoir, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, Rideau describes the privileges C. Paul Phelps, Louisiana Department of Corrections deputy director in the 1970s, extended to the magazine, in hopes of improving the quality of life and work inside Angola — unrestricted access to research material, a telephone, and even permission to leave prison grounds under guard to report. Imagine how changed the carceral system could be if today’s prison press had this level of access, and this quality of good faith from audiences.