The Journalism Guild of San Quentin held its first formal graduation in the prison’s Garden Chapel in late September.
More than 50 people attended the ceremony, including current and former students from UC Berkeley, who worked with the men in the Guild and San Quentin News.
“I’m filled with so much pride,” said Yukari Kane, the guild instructor for the last two years. “You remind me of why journalism is important.”
“It’s been such a privilege,” Kane said before congratulating the men and presenting them with certificates of participation, completion and other levels of writing. She said the class wasn’t easy, “but you’ve delivered.”
She was also the keynote speaker.
Kane thanked Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson for supporting the program and acknowledged San Quentin News editor-in-chief Richard Richardson’s leadership, the UC Berkeley students’ commitment to the class and News adviser John Eagan, the first journalism Guild instructor. She said the class is there because Eagan “had the vision.”
“He set the course,” Kane said“He allowed me to take over his baby.”
She also spoke of Marcus Henderson, the Journalism Guild chairman.
“I couldn’t have done any of this without him,” she said.
Henderson opened the ceremony by giving a brief history of the Guild and its connection to San Quentin News as its farm team of writers that have contributed more than 160 stories to the newspaper this year.
“As striving reporters, it is our jobs to capture the history of our time,” Henderson said. “Reporting from prison starts with self-transformation to amend past damage and provide healing for the future.”
He thanked the Guild graduates and U.C. Berkeley students for their contributions to placing “voices of the incarcerated in the world.”
“The Journalism Guild is the centerpiece to San Quentin News,” Richardson said. He acknowledged education instructor Don Pino as the first Guild sponsor. He thanked the U.C. Berkeley students and said the Guild’s dedication is what keeps him going.
“You’re representing millions of inmates around the U.S,” he said.
Richardson said the men walk into the Guild to become better journalists, but they leave as better human beings.
For entertainment, Philippe Kelly and Eric “Maserati E” Abercrombie performed an original rap song they titled “Graduation.” Everyone stood up as they performed and sang: “I’m on a rise…graduated / Now watch me shine…” The audience smiled and bounced their heads to the music and sang along. They closed the ceremony with their song “Break the Mold.”
Lt. Sam Robinson talked about all the work the news- paper has done and reflected on the first time he, former Warden Robert Ayers, advisers John Eagan, Joan Lisetor, Steve McNamara, and former editor-in-chief Michael Harris met in the chapel to discuss restarting the newspaper 10 years ago.
“San Quentin News is beyond the walls of this prison,” Robinson said. “Your voice is the voice of millions of people.” He also discussed the “short timers,” News staffers who’ve been found suitable for release by the Board of Parole Hearings, and others who’ve received commutation of their sentence by Governor Brown. “I don’t look to them anymore. I look to you,” he said of the Guild writers and other News staff who will run the paper in the future.
“Writing is about character and having a diversity of voices to be heard on paper,” said Lisa Strawn, a transgender who delivered one of the most convincing speeches of the day. “When I write, it tells the character of my soul.” She thanked Henderson for asking her to speak.
Strawn said writing is easy. It was simple to tell about her life and the lives of others, and sitting in front of Kane for 26 weeks has been one of the highlights of her 24 years in prison.
“It has given me a chance for many to see who I am and not be judged for what people see.” she said. “I am grateful to have been your student.”
Henderson gave certificates of appreciation to all the U.C. Berkeley students.
“They’ll always be in our heart,” he said.
Anna Clausen, a recent UC Berkeley graduate from Iceland, said the one thing that stood out to her is when News sports writer Rahsaan Thomas told her how he remembered the first time he found hope in prison was by writing.”
“It got to me,” she said. “I came here to learn about American prisons.”
Clausen said she learned about the uniqueness of San Quentin having so many programs and opportunities for the men to rehabilitate themselves, unlike many other California prisons.
“I hope someday San Quentin will have competition,” she said.
“I thought it was really wonderful to usher in a new group of talented people,” said Kate Wolffe, a recent UC Berkeley graduate.
She said the News has a great legacy and the first official Guild graduation ceremony holds a lot of weight, and she hopes others will consider joining to try their hands at journalism.
“It really is a fulfilling experience to help the newspaper,” said Andrew Beale, another U.C. Berkeley graduate, who assisted the Guild. “The more I kept coming in, the more I liked it. I felt like I had something to offer.”
“I don’t think anything could have prepared me for prison,” said Claire Gelbart, Kane’s teaching assistant in the Guild, who is leaving to work in New York. “The SQ Journalism Guild is the hardest to say goodbye to. I hope this class gives you a sense of empowerment. Let your stories speak for themselves.”
“There’s so much work that needs to be done,” said Kane, who will be leaving the Guild also to move to Chicago. “Leaving San Quentin News is probably my biggest regret leaving San Francisco.”
“Whoever tells the story writes history. Protect your integrity as a writer.”
“When I first came in (prison), all I had was my past, with no future,” said Jesse Vasquez, who’s been with the News for one year. He said everything is embedded in the narrative, and for many inmates their narratives are casualties. He said his reason for sticking with the Guild was to be able to tell a better story because every inmate has something to say. He since has had an article published in the Washington Post.
“It does not come easy,” Eagan added. “They have to bear down. They have to work hard.”