If you are ever lucky enough to land in San Quentin Prison, walk down the hill to the Lower Yard. Check out the tennis and basketball courts, the baseball field and the drop-dead view of Mt. Tam. Then make your way through the crowd of inmates to the office of the San Quentin News (S.Q. News), one of the few print newspapers in America that is actually flourishing.
Of course it helps that the paper’s main target audience – prison inmates – has no access to the Internet, which is where a lot of newspaper readers outside of prison have taken their business. But even taking that into account, the growth of the paper to its current level of excellence is amazing. The man who planted the seed, former warden Bob Ayers, is himself amazed. “I hoped it would be good, but I never thought it would be this good,” he said on a recent visit to the prison.
San Quentin journalism has quite a history. In the 1920s and 30s there was a paper named Wall City News that claimed to be “The Only Newspaper in the World Published Within The Walls of a Prison.” That paper ceased publication, replaced in December 1940 by the San Quentin News. The father of the News was Clinton Duffy, the famously progressive warden of San Quentin. He wanted the paper to supplant the inmate grapevine and be a more reliable source of prison information.
The S.Q. News had its ups and downs thereafter. A high point came during the 1980s when there were scores of prison newspapers in the U.S. and in one competition the News was judged the best prison newspaper in the country. That was the Golden Age of prison journalism when a succession of court decisions held that prisoner First Amendment rights could be abridged only in pursuit of “legitimate penological interests.” Wardens couldn’t edit stories just to eliminate offensive opinions. But they could deal with publications that bugged them by claiming that prison security was at risk. And so one after another prison newspaper vanished, including the S.Q. News.
Bob Ayers saw things differently. To revive the News in the spring of 2008 he tapped three former newspaper reporters and editors: John Eagan, Joan Lisetor and myself, to be joined later by Linda Xiques. The startup paper had a staff of about four inmates, none of whom had a clue as to how to put a newspaper together, so the paper was largely created by the advisers. But inmate staff members were impressively quick learners and by now have taken ownership of the paper’s production. These days suggestions by advisers are sometimes followed and sometimes politely ignored.
The staff has grown to about 15 inmates plus a farm team of some 20 inmates who meet weekly at the Journalism Guild to learn writing skills, contribute articles and who often move up to slots on the staff.
What started more than 75 years ago as an inside report on prison doings has grown substantially in size and scope of coverage. Articles still focus on San Quentin but there is also coverage of events and issues throughout the country. The monthly issues have gone from 8 pages to 20 (sometimes 24) and the number of copies printed from 5,000 to 13,000. Seven years ago the paper was mainly seen within San Quentin; today it goes to another 20 of California’s 34 adult prisons and to a large number of donors, officials and interested parties involved in the criminal justice system. Plus there is a website that features current and past issues.
The presence of donors is significant. All prison newspapers were once supported by their prison systems. That was the case at San Quentin until early 2010 when the state closed the prison print shop. The paper teetered on the edge of oblivion until its then Editor-in-Chief, Michael (Harry O.) Harris, offered to pay for the paper’s printing at Marin Sun Printing, a newspaper plant I used to own. That kept the paper going until Harris was paroled in October 2011. Then I started a non-profit, the Prison Media Project, got a startup grant from the Marin Community Foundation and ever since we have been privately financed, mostly from foundations. The prison system provides office space, computers and office supplies.
The S.Q. News is one of the very few inmate-produced papers in existence, certainly in the U.S. There are prison newspapers in Texas and Minnesota, but they are produced by prison system headquarters with inmate participation. That’s a big difference from the inmate-directed S.Q. News. The Angolite in Louisiana, a justly famous magazine published six times a year, is probably the only other strong inmate voice in the country.
San Quentin inmates are smart enough to avoid coverage that would infuriate the prison administration and get the paper shut down again. In turn the authorities, notably Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson, oversee the paper with a very light hand. Coverage of criminal justice news is sometimes supportive and positive, sometimes quite critical.
The S.Q. News has received increasing notice and praise from outside. The Society of Professional Journalists conferred a James Madison Award in 2014 and there have been laudatory articles in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee and The Nation magazine. Most recently a team of 11 from CNN spent a week at San Quentin filming for a segment of a new documentary series, “United Shades of America,” due to show early in 2016. Don’t miss it.