Sitting at my desk in front of my computer, fingers on my keyboard, I am approached by a staff member who asks, “Why do you do what you do?” I look up and notice it’s my fellow journalist, Juan Haines. He is standing next me, playing Candy Crush on his GTL tablet, smiling and waiting for me to answer.
Some of the brightest hope left for human transformation may be found in the most unlikely occupation — as an incarcerated journalist. At the San Quentin News, we boast a 0% recidivism rate for the dozens of staff who have worked here before being released. Some of them even received commutations from the governor.
We have one of the last remaining true newsrooms in the country to go along with our still-printed-on-paper newspaper. We started in a closet with one computer, a handful of incarcerated journalists, and one retired professional journalist as a volunteer. Today we are a bustling enterprise with a staff of 20 sharing an office with 12 computers. We have over a dozen professional volunteers.
Each day is a day that I get to focus on capturing history as it happens. I live vicariously through others. One of my inspirations, John J. Lennon, built a career as an incarcerated journalist. He’s been in the business for over a decade.
“You are wildly irrelevant when you come to prison,” Lennon wrote in the Prison Journalism Project. “You’re nothing here and you’re nothing outside because you’ve become a memory of what you used to be. But when I’m writing and when I’m doing journalism, I take back the narrative.”
Lennon hones his skills at the Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York. He is managing to stay alive in prison through his written words.
For some, journalism provides purpose while living a purposeless life. Chris Blackwell is serving a life sentence in a Washington state correctional facility.
“Seeing the change that happens when you have the ability to educate people around the harms of things like solitary confinement, mass incarceration and the traumas that come through those, it feeds a fire that burns so hot inside of me,” Blackwell wrote.
There are a myriad of hard and soft skills that a person can develop through practicing journalism.
Shaheen Pasha is a journalism professor and the co-founder of PJP, an organization that provides a platform for training incarcerated writers and publishing their stories.
“The study of journalism can provide tangible skills, such as writing, critical thinking, social skills, and a foundation in ethics that are invaluable on the outside, regardless of profession,” Pasha wrote in NeimanReports. “But, even more importantly, helping incarcerated men and women create works of journalism that lay bare their hidden world can generate more societal understanding of their experiences, aiding in their rehabilitation upon reentry to the outside world.”
Thousands of incarcerated people across the country send written contributions to places like PJP. Many collaborate with other freelance journalists, such as through Empowerment Avenue. Many of them earn honest money for their work.
One of them was Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, the co-founder of Empowerment Avenue. He recently paroled from San Quentin where he worked for SQNews and Ear Hustle.
“Before I became a writer, I was a 49-year-old man asking my mom for money for packages and support to help me access justice,” Thomas said. “[But] as a working artist, I was able to get the help I needed to get a lawyer and I’m no longer a burden on my family. I can also take care of my grandkids.”
Journalism is not only good for rehabilitation; it can be a viable career choice after prison.
Lawrence Bartley spent 27 years in New York prisons where he did a lot of writing, earning advanced degrees. Once released, he landed a job at the Marshall Project. He is now the executive producer of Inside Story, a video series that delivers stories to the incarcerated. He has been living a successful life since his release in 2018.
Keri Blakinger went to prison for drugs and ended reporting on women’s issues while inside. She is the first formerly incarcerated reporter who worked for The Marshall Project and now works for the Los Angeles Times. She also has a new book, “Corrections in Ink: A Memoir,” about her time in prison for a drug crime in New York. Blakinger has been out of prison over seven years, succeeding in journalism at the highest levels.
As for me, I didn’t start my life as journalist in a newsroom or in college. I started on my bunk in my prison cell using a portable NEO digital typewriter. I was inspired by the cries for help that pierced through my cell bars during the outbreak of Covid-19 at San Quentin. I honed my skills writing for PJP and SQNews, eventually winning writing awards. That’s what brought me to journalism.
I use my voice to capture the life and mood of the incarcerated and to share my findings with the world. The work I do ensures that those hidden from society are seen, and it changes people’s lives for the better. I find myself caring about others and my community even more as journalism has helped me find my voice and place in this world. It also offers me a viable job option on release and lowers my chance of recidivism.
“There are so many reasons why I do what I do,” I told Haines.