Fueled by the growing interest in real-life reporting from behind bars, the Prison Journalism Project (PJP) launched itself in April 2020 as a national nonprofit platform for incarcerated writers and artists.
Executive Directors Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha originally co-founded PJP to create a textbook and curriculum to expand journalism education inside the walls. But with COVID-19 shutting down regular inside programming across the country, PJP shifted gears into online publishing.
“We realized this was a historic moment — in terms of prisoners not being adequately prepared for this health crisis — not being given masks, not being able to social distance, etc.,” said Kane, who is also an adviser for San Quentin News.
PJP had initially intended to focus on stories about COVID-19, but they broadened the scope because writers had so much to say about George Floyd, mental health, parenting from behind the bars and other issues.
“The men and women inside needed an outlet for their voice,” said Pasha.
By propelling the voice of the incarcerated community into mainstream media, PJP hopes to provide writers and artists a route into the national conversation on criminal and social justice reform.
“People need to know that journalism is absolutely necessary behind bars,” explained Pasha. “Think about it. The number of incarcerated persons in America — that’s the equivalent of a small country. How can you have a whole country without journalism?”
As veteran reporters themselves, journalism professors Kane and Pasha use their experience to support prison writers willing to produce content. Together with Director Kate McQueen, the PJP team encourages all incarcerated persons to contribute their insight and experience to the historic narrative of mass incarceration for its publishing platform prisonjournalismproject.org.
It accepts articles, essays, op-eds, poetry, art and photographs.
“Most media that report on incarceration use easier sources, the easier access of relying on the prosecutor’s and law enforcement’s side of the story,” noted McQueen, adding that writers behind the wall can help provide “a fuller, more rounded picture.”
Formerly incarcerated multimedia journalist Christopher Etienne also recently joined the organization as a director to explore new ways of telling stories by combining dispatches from inside with photos, video and music.
“Yukari and Shaheen are both really smart, talented workaholics,” said McQueen, whose main focus lies in the history and practice of journalism. “The fact that the three of us are at three different universities across the country, we’ve been able to combine our knowledge, our interests and our individual networks.”
In addition to its own publication, PJP helps put its writers’ work in front of experienced editors at outside publications. Using their strong contact base, PJP has already helped place stories by incarcerated writers onto the pages of the San Francisco Public Press, Street Spirit and the Washington Post.
“The power of any community comes down to the power of its numbers — so the more prison writers tell their stories, the more clear and complete that story will be,” said Kane. “We don’t want to tell you what to write. We have ideas, but nobody can tell stories about what’s inside better than the incarcerated community.”
So far to date, PJP submissions total more than 250 stories from over 100 writers inside correctional facilities across 26 states. One recently published Q&A featured former Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight, who gave the interview to an incarcerated reporter serving time with him at the Donovan Prison near San Diego.
“I want to see writers learn new ways to be creative,” said McQueen. “And learn to write with style — in order to tell a true story.”
Using social media to engage in conversation, PJP is drawing as much attention as possible to their writers’ product.
“I just got a tweet from a lady in Australia,” said an excited Pasha. “That response, that acceptance, with which people are embracing these stories about things they have no prior experience with in their lives… it shows that our writers’ work has value.”
PJP welcomes and looks for stories from all sectors of incarceration. It wants to make a particular effort to publish work by underrepresented voices such as women, LGBTQ community members and people held in immigration detention centers or prisons on Native American reservations.
It also wants to hear from the incarceration-impacted people — that includes family, friends, corrections staff, prison volunteers and educators, medical personnel and legal advocates — anyone who has something to say.
Kane said she hoped to eventually bring together a number of incarcerated reporters from inside different facilities for one big collaborative story project. PJP is also looking for incarcerated artists who can mix imagery and words into a compelling story.
Kane, McQueen and Pasha all juggle the demands of their academic careers with their PJP commitments. In addition to recruiting an army of volunteers and assistants, they are exploring funding through grants, awards and their nonprofit donor base.
We want to keep this thing sustainable,” said Pasha.
For now, PJP prompts writers and artists to express their vision for 2021 and beyond. Optimism? Fear? Outrage? Transformation? What motivates you throughout your own incarcerated experience? How did you spend your New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day?
To send stuff and or/ask questions: PJP, 2093 Philadelphia Pike #1054, Claymont, DE 19703