San Quentin News lost six key staff members to parole during the year-long corona-virus pandemic that placed the prison on virtual lockdown.
“Losing six people in any organization is hard,” said Marcus Henderson, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “But all these guys who went home are more than my coworkers — they are my family. Now they’re home with their families, and there’s nothing better than that.” Twenty-four hours after San Quentin State Prison was placed on a “modified program” last year in mid-March, Javier Jimenez, the newspaper’s photographer paroled. He was saying his good-byes when it was announced that West Block was placed on medical quarantine.
Jimenez was more than the SQ News photographer. He was a brother and friend to everyone who worked with him in the newsroom. When he wasn’t at an event taking pictures, he was helping the SQ News team keep the office in shape. It was his self-assigned duty of helper.
Jimenez stuffed envelopes for mass mailings, bagged newspapers for distribution around the prison and helped to deliver newspapers. He organized computer files, swept, mopped, cleaned tables and anything else that made the work environment feel welcoming to all who entered the newsroom.
In addition to his skills as a photographer, Jimenez prepared pictures for layout using Photoshop.
“I don’t do nothin’,” Jimenez would say, jokingly, when some News staff asked what he did all day. The truth is, doing everything was nothing to Jimenez because he enjoyed his time in the newsroom. He was a team player.
Jonathan Chiu paroled shortly after the lockdown. Like other SQ News staff, his life sentence was commuted by former Gov. Jerry Brown.
Because Chiu lived in North Block, his departure during the pandemic was uneventful as staff in West Block and H-unit could not say good-bye to him properly. But everyone remembers his unwavering contributions to the SQ News team.
Chiu served SQ News in many capacities. Quiet and humble, his talent was often overlooked as he moved around the office as a stop gap to keep the News operation in motion. When asked by visitors what his job assignment was, he modestly replied, “I do the crossword puzzles.” He would later explain why.
“Any legitimate paper in society has a crossword puzzle,” said Chiu. “I figured it would bring something exciting to the paper. That was my personal way of contributing.”
Chiu was also the newspaper’s technical support with computers and software. He served as managing editor and worked many years designing and laying out the newspaper and Wall City magazine. He trained other staff, and he did photography when called upon. Sometimes he even wrote stories.
Chiu said working for SQ News is not a job someone is assigned to randomly. He knows because he was recruited when he worked in the media center’s movie broadcast room. He left that job to work in Prison Industry Authority, but by 2015 he found a home at SQ News.
“It’s a job you have to want to go to,” said Chiu. He said it was like family. “It’s good and bad, but overall we got along, sometimes not.”
“San Quentin overall has been a very interesting experience,” said Chiu. “I didn’t go there with the idea I’m going to get out. I got the opportunity for rehabilitation, and to accomplish things.” That led to his commutation of sentence.
Chiu said Lt. Sam Robinson www.sanquentinnews.com was a good supervisor and that he met a lot of great people at the prison.
When the pandemic forced the newspaper to shut down temporarily, Chiu worked with other SQ News alumni on parole to help produce the newspaper on the outside. The incarcerated staff remained on modified program but mailed their stories out. Chiu transcribed many of the handwritten and typed stories and prepared them for editing, proofing. He also resumed his old design and layout job.
Chiu currently works full-time as a hotline coordinator at the nonprofit Transitions Clinic Network, which provides medical services for people returning home from incarceration.
Michael Johnson was a writer on the News business team whose primary responsibility was to ensure the digital version of the newspaper was posted online.
A go-between from SQ News to The Last Mile coding course, Code 7370, Johnson had permission to walk a flash drive of files and images over to the SQ News computer in coding and place them into WordPress software. TLM staff later moved the data to the SQ News website.
Johnson provided SQ News management with website updates for reports and weekly staff meetings with outside advisers, and each month he made sure Google analytics for the website were available so staff could monitor the website traffic. Through it all, he often found himself in a troubleshooter role when problems came up or a design change was needed.
Johnson earned his Master’s degree before he paroled. He was living in H-Unit dorm housing unit so SQ News staff in North Block and West Block did not have a chance to bid him a righteous farewell. But everyone was happy that he made it home to his family.
Aaron Taylor arrived at San Quentin in December 2011. He was the sports editor for the SQ News and described himself as “the voice of sports at the Q.”
The SQ News senior editor, Juan Haines, convinced Taylor to write for the newspaper.
“We were at Calipatria (State Prison),” said Haines. “I first met him when I was playing basketball and he was standing under the rim, commenting the game. He was popular because he was giving everyone nicknames.”
Haines said he and Taylor were reacquainted at San Quentin and formed a friendship that led to Taylor joining the News. “It had its ups and downs,” Haines said. “He had to learn about working for a newspaper and reporting. But he picked it up and became a great sports writer.”
Taylor attended games, and often covered them with his unique style of play-by-play. He paroled last year in October, with plans to “take a shot at the pros,” broadcasting live sporting events.
“Play by play, for me, brings the audience into the game,” Taylor wrote. “I understand that getting on the pro level is going to be tough, but no one ever achieved their dream by staying in one place.”
Taylor wrote that he’s “leaving out of prison much healthier than when [he] came in,” referring to his mental, spiritual, emotional and psychological well-being. He gave credit to the many self-help programs at the prison.
“Self-help groups work if you want them to work,” Taylor wrote. “So my example in CDCR is one can create positive platforms despite the haters that surround you.”
“So, stay real,” Taylor advised. “Be always in service to others, even as you seek to heal yourself.” And, he added, “Stay woke.”
Taylor, nicknamed Showtime, was honored recently as the guest public address announcer at a Golden State Warriors basketball game. After the game, Warriors star Stephen Curry, who knew Taylor from a number of visits to San Quentin, presented Tayor with a big hug and the game ball.
Juan Espinosa took on many responsibilities during his two years with the newspaper. He did the Spanish translations, design and layout of SQ News and Wall City magazine, and he helped to run the Spanish Journalism Guild. He plans to stay involved with the News family of alumni on the outside. “I think we can still make it happen,” he said. With technology, he said all he needs is a phone and a computer.
“It’s bittersweet to get out of here,” said Espinosa. He was happy to parole but sad to leave SQ News. “We all had different attitudes and personalities, but that made the paper strong.”
As a Mexican national, Espinosa was told ICE was coming to deport him. Because he served a little more than 28 years, he was not going to fight it.
“There’s no point in me staying two or three years in a detention center,” said Espinosa. Instead, he wanted to be close to his family.
Espinosa said he was not going to forget about other Mexican nationals. He plans to contact the Mexican consulate to get information for Mexican nationals in California prisons, “to fight for social justice,” he said.
Espinosa said he wants to use his skills to write stories about others who have been deported to Mexico but are not making out so well. He said he also wants people to know the truth about what happens in prison, like the disparity of release on parole for people of color.
“It looks like it’s not balanced,” said Espinosa. “There’s a lot of social racism in prison.” Richard “Bonaru” Richardson is the last of the original SQ News staff that resurrected the newspaper in 2008, when former warden Robert Ayers Jr. decided to bring back the publication.
Richardson started off as an offset printer operator, before the print shop shutdown. He worked with Aly Tamboura, Kenny Brydon, Michael Harris, and the late Arnulfo T. Garcia. The latter three served as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, and all paroled before Richardson, who served 23 years of a 47-year sentence. His sentence was commuted by former Gov. Jerry Brown.
Richardson also served as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, but it was a longer road for him to get there than for the others.
“I was trying to figure out who I was, a Black person among so many Black people in prison,” said Richardson, who could not read and write when he arrived in prison. He said the pivotal moment in his life came when he decided the criminal life wasn’t for him. “What nudged me was the Prison University Project. Jody (Lewen) told me I needed to expand my education.”
Richardson also credits his print shop supervisor, John Wilkerson, as a “father figure” who taught him discipline and responsibility. “He saw that I needed direction and he guided me to the most responsible machine.” He said that machine was “the prisoner.”
After crossing that barrier, Richardson said he learned to trust people outside the inmate population, such as newspaper supervisor Lt. Rudy Luna and SQ News advisers John Eagan, Steve McNamara and Joan Lisetor.
When the print shop closed, Richardson was lost. “I didn’t understand my value at that time,” he said. But he’d built a good relationship with everyone, and because of that “they asked me to stay with San Quentin News.”
When Lt. Robinson took over as the newspaper’s supervisor, Richardson said, “That’s when I really opened up in trusting people on the other side of the fence.” He described his relationship with Robinson as more like a big brother. “I learned how to be accountable and responsible not only for myself, but to those who I am around.”
Richardson learned to use Adobe InDesign software and became one of the newspaper’s layout and design editors. Years later he was assigned the position of managing editor and eventually became editor-in-chief.
“I began to understand what I could do with my job with the SQ News — not only tell stories but find solutions to problems we all have,” said Richardson.
Haines has known Richardson the longest. The two met at Soledad State Prison. “I joined the Journalism Guild and (Richardson) was the layout designer, and I was a writer,” said Haines. “He pretty much held things together as far as actually producing the newspaper. He quietly went about his business building a newspaper each month. He stayed out of the heavy politics of running the newspaper.”
Haines said Richardson’s leadership qualities began showing after Garcia paroled. “It became apparent to me, because I relied heavily on (Garcia),” he said. “I’ve seen (Richardson) grow into a true leader who could navigate between staff and prisoners in a respectful and dignified way.”
Those six parolees make up a third of the SQ News staff. What is perhaps unique about working there is that it is one of the few jobs in American journalism where the ultimate goal is to quit, an odd spin on “freedom” of the press.
— Juan M. Haines, senior editor, contributed to this story.