What Prisoners Get Out of Working for a Prison Newspaper
Are prison-written newspapers a good idea? Well, it depends.
More than 20 years ago dozens of prison newspapers dotted the map all across the United States. There were so many that they formed their own news association. Then, one by one, almost all of them disappeared, including the San Quentin News, which went dark for around 20 years.
They fell victim to the violence and racial turmoil of the 1980s. Wardens and superintendents across the land had their hands full simply maintaining order. And the prison publications at the time often engaged in exposing lapses in the prison administration. This was no way to befriend the warden’s office. Meanwhile, the courts held that wardens were constitutionally prevented from censoring the publications. So, the easy solution was to shut them down. And that’s what happened.
Looking back on the history of San Quentin News through the decades, since its founding by Warden Clinton Duffy, it’s clear that prison journalism needs the support and confidence of the administration. Both sides need to be on the same page. Otherwise, it won’t work. Since former Warden Robert Ayers revived the newspaper in 2008 after a shutdown of nearly 20 years, the San Quentin administration and the prisoner staffers now have an effective working relationship.
What have been the benefits? From the administration’s point of view the newspaper helped the prison win recognition throughout the country for its rehabilitation efforts. The warden gained bragging rights. Although SQ is still referred to in news reports as “notorious,” San Quentin nowadays most often appears in the news for its forward-looking training programs, such as Guiding Rage Into Power and The Last Mile, which pioneered the training of prisoners in computer coding. In addition, the newspaper played an important role getting the message out to California prisoners that important, effective programs were in place at SQ. Instead of being known as Johnny Cash’s worst nightmare, SQ became known as a prime place to do time. Mainstream media from across the country picked up on these themes, creating a positive, hopeful echo effect.
It has not always been a bed of roses. The 45-day suspension in 2014 is an example. The warden at the time punished the newspaper for publishing an “unauthorized” photograph from a Shakespeare production. The newspaper rebounded, and today the editors and staff communicate frequently and candidly with Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson. And as a result of the 2014 suspension, more safeguards are in place. Nowadays, before publication, all of the copy goes to Sacramento for a complete vetting before it goes to the printer.
The more significant part of the question is, what do the prisoner journalists get out of working on a prison newspaper? Does it play a role in making them better men?
Yes, it does, and I don’t think it has much to do with writing. Here’s why:
1.Prisoners feel ‘validated.’ They feel they are part of a worthy cause and get support from authority figures on the outside for what they are doing.
2. Seeing their name in a byline is a big ego boost. They gain status on the prison yard.
3. They interact with intelligent, stimulating people from the outside. At San Quentin, I’ve been bringing UC Berkeley students since 2012 to help edit the newspaper. The visits give prison journalists a window on the outside world.
4. The act of reporting summons the man outside his own head and his immediate surroundings. Gaining facts through interviews is an ongoing challenge. Actively engaged in research, the prison journalist gains confidence.
5. The San Quentin News has a good reputation with the parole system. It’s a persuasive item in a prisoner’s campaign to get out of prison. And prisoners have sought support letters from contacts they’ve made via the newspaper.
6. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1974 made the strongest case for prisoner journalism in his opinion written in the landmark California case Procunier v. Martinez: “When the prison gates slam behind a prisoner, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded.”