Veteran journalist Ted Koppel got it right when he said William J. Drummond proves to be the right person to tell the tale of San Quentin News (SQN). Drummond’s credibility as the storyteller comes from his long and eventful career as a journalist, UC Berkeley journalism professor and his once or twice a week venture inside the SQN newsroom office for more than eight years to mentor incarcerated journalists.
Prison Truth: The Story of the San Quentin News, (2020) is a detailed account of the journey that led to SQN becoming a first-rate prisoner produced newspaper. The newspaper was reborn in 2008 after a 20-year hiatus. Maverick warden Robert Ayers, Jr. wanted to break down the rumor mill and give prisoners trustworthy information about life at the Q.
Since then, SQN has been honored with an award for “extraordinary journalism” by the Society of Professional Journalists and written about by at least five major newspapers.
Drummond began his own relationship with SQN in mid- 2012 by holding a college class in the newsroom. Since then more than 80 of his students have helped incarcerated journalists develop and structure their stories before handing them over to the more than half- dozen advisers. At SQN, the advisers, who are professional journalists, do the final editing and proofing and have done so since its 2008 resurgence.
Drummond has witnessed the monthly paper go to press in spite of major limitations:
no internet access, slow access to outside sources, no smart phones and a literal wall that keeps the staffers away from the community. Drummond notes, “What is lacking in convenience is made up for with grit and determination.”
Much of the grit and determination came from SQN’s third editor in chief, the late Arnulfo Timoteo Garcia, who frequently spoke about how Federal Judge Thelton Hender- son impacted him. After Henderson had visited San Quentin in the summer of 2010, he urged Garcia to invite as many people as possible to come inside San Quentin to see the rehabilitative efforts of the prisoners.
Garcia followed that advice by inviting judges, district attorneys, county sheriffs, state and federal lawmakers to at- tend and participate in San Quentin forums— we’ve now had more than two dozen of them—where prisoners talk about their incarceration experience, rehabilitative efforts and reentry plans.
The forums, modeled after restorative justice circles, give the outside public safety officials an authentic and intimate view of prisons and its occupants.
As a direct result of the forums, San Francisco district attorneys created a Formerly Incarcerated Advisory Board. Newly elected District Attorney Chesa Boudin said that he intends to keep the board.
Prison Truth examines the advantages of having stories told by people directly affected by incarceration. The resulting news narratives are from the vantage point of embedded re- porters.
One of the newspaper’s original mandates is to scrutinize programs designed for rehabilitation.
“Accountability interviews,” ones in which incarcerated people talk about what they did to land in prison, appear regularly. The stories not only teach by example, they reveal the resilience of the human spirit. For prisoners who are committed to rehabilitation, the articles serve as guides.
Prison officials recognize these benefits so it’s not surprising that the newspaper and its staff writers have gained the support of an assortment of public safety officials.
Drummond asks, “Are the inmate staff’s efforts journal- ism? The question he poses is bold, because traditionally, journalism has been viewed as impartial and objective with- out an advocacy role. So, if it isn’t traditional journalism, is what we are doing worth it? He concludes in the affirmative: “I believe journalism is an effective tool for rehabilitating people in prison…Journalism places an additional burden on writers: What they write must be accurate, true, and above all fair.”
I can attest to Drummond’s claim. I have learned that when incarcerated people read stories about redemption, recovery and returning to the community, they are inspired to do the same.
I have heard free people talk about the ways that articles in SQN have changed their own incarcerated loved ones. I’ve also heard free people talk about how heartening it is, for the first time, to read positive words about their sons, fathers, brothers, husbands and boyfriends.
I have witnessed children reunite with parents and incarcerated men drop gangs, dope and bad behavior after taking advantage of available programs to reunite with their families. So, is what we do good journalism?
Prison Truth gives readers the chance to answer this question.