The award-winning San Quentin News has become one of the few prison projects ever to hold its own fundraising gala in California.
The Nov. 23 inaugural event, hailed as “historic,” took place at Marin Shakespeare Company’s headquarters in San Rafael and was attended by 43 supporters, who donated more than $2,000 for the newspaper.
The dinner, which was well attended despite the rain, attracted formerly incarcerated persons, current volunteers and community members interested in social justice.
Although the paper’s staff members were absent (they were at chow or in the media center–all behind walls at San Quentin State Prison), the writers and editors made an appearance in videos watched by the audience.
“An event like this is unprecedented in San Quentin history,” Associate Editor and Business Manager Kevin Sawyer said on video. “The way we’ve always done donations has been through inserts in our paper, word of mouth. This has been our first time communicating with donors.”
According to Sawyer, the gala was a form of first contact, a donor outreach event meant to drum up outside support. The News’ current goal is to expand its reach to all 50 states.
In addition, attendees heard the plans to increase the reach of the monthly newspaper to all the correctional facilities in California and beyond. The staff also produces a web site (sanquentinnews.com) and a magazine, Wall City.
Since the newspaper was founded in 1940s, the publication expenses were covered by the state. When Warden Clinton Duffy started the newspaper, it could rely on the Prison Industries Authority printing press and prison labor to print each issue. When the print shop shut down in 2010, the News had to find its own source of funding, which has taken the form of grants from foundations, to pay the costs of printing the newspaper in a commercial printing company in San Rafael. The newspaper is seeking to expand its donor base to include the social justice community.
Former inmate Dameion Brown, who has successfully pursued a career in acting, gave a moving tribute to how the prison’s theater group helped him find purpose while incarcerated. To the delight of the room, Brown recited a speech from Othello, a role he portrayed as the Moor of Venice in a Marin Shakespeare Company production.
Aly Tamboura, one of the original San Quentin News staff members who revived the newspaper in 2008, spoke to the group. Employed by the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, a social justice advocacy organization, Tamboura spoke of the history and power of the San Quentin News as a force for good in the prison. He stressed the importance of finding direction behind bars.
Other volunteers and advisors also spoke about the impact that the News has had on their lives and perspectives. They reflected on how far the newspaper had come and expressed their excitement to watch it grow. Lisa Adams, director of development for the Friends of San Quentin News, called the gala a “historic event” in the growth of the News.
Adams stressed that the San Quentin News has served to educate men and women both within and outside of the criminal justice system. The men who create it have found purpose, community and invaluable training for when they re-enter society, she said.
Speaking via video, Jesse Vasquez, editor in chief of the San Quentin News, said, “We show them the education, the services, the groups the guys have access to in here — show them that if they’re better in here, they’ll be better out there. There isn’t a difference between the inside and outside community.”