June marks 15 years since warden Robert Ayers Jr. revived the San Quentin News after more than 20 years. Today, 35,000 newspapers are printed and distributed each month to all prisons within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and beyond.
“The reason [SQNews] was stopped is because it couldn’t be censored anymore. That’s the truth,” said Ayers in a 2019 interview. The uselessness of restraint on the publication, he reasoned, was that inmates already have access to television, radio, newspapers and magazines. “As far as I’m concerned, if it can be broadcast and printed out there, why can’t it be printed in San Quentin News?”
With that in mind, today SQNews focuses more on stories about the nature of incarceration, what rehabilitation looks like, and successful reentry into society.
“I consider it my duty to continue striving to make this a successful organization,” said Steve Brooks, SQNews Editor-in-Chief. “I believe in the mission of San Quentin News. I believe it is important that incarcerated people be seen and heard, and I will continue to fulfill the vision of wardens [Clinton] Duffy and Ayers. It’s an important medium for capturing the history as it happens inside the prison.”
Small details account for the newspaper’s success. Inside of fifteen years, SQNews has published 157 issues of the inmate-run newspaper. During that time, it has produced an estimated 3 million paper copies for readers. All articles are accessible in digital print and PDF format on the paper’s website, www.sanquentinnews.com.
Several years ago, SQNews passed the mark raising more than one million dollars to fund its printing, distribution and website costs. This is because the CDCR does not allocate money from its $14.5 billion dollar annual budget to produce the newspaper.
Long-time SQNews adviser Steve McNamara established The Prison Media Project to raise money to fund the newspaper. After University of California Berkeley graduate students produced a 56-page business plan for SQNews in 2013, Friends of San Quentin News (FoSQN) was established. Jesse Vasquez, 40, a former Editor-in-Chief of SQNews, is the FoSQN executive director. He learned about the newspaper at another prison.
“San Quentin News showed me that change was possible because I was able to see men in blue make a difference in their community and in their own lives,” said Vasquez. “Now I feel a responsibility to expand those opportunities for others to grow and make a difference.”
In the beginning, SQNews faced other difficulties, according to Kenneth Brydon, the newspaper’s first Editor-in-Chief when Ayers restarted the publication.
“The reality of returning the newspaper to print was that much of the philosophy of incarceration [at the time] was based upon ‘Tough on Crime,’” Brydon wrote in an email for this story.
A prolific writer, Brydon arrived at San Quentin on April 3, 1993. There he served the remainder of a life sentence for murder. He paroled on August 20, 2017.
Brydon wrote that the mindset among many when SQNews restarted was “inmates didn’t need or deserve any sort of help or information,” adding, “the opposition to it was significant by those who believed in punishment and retribution being the only things deserved by the incarcerated.” He also wrote how some inmates didn’t believe the paper could serve “any real purpose, other than to be propaganda for that lock-em up ideology.”
Shortly after his time at the helm, Brydon left SQNews “after becoming very ill, coming close to death,” he wrote. He also commented on how “the stress of the job” made his physical condition worse.
Aly Tamboura, who was on the SQNews staff in 2008 when it restarted, had similar memories. “In the beginning we got hell from inmates and staff,” he said in a 2016 interview before he paroled. “Inmates felt the News was a mouthpiece for the administration and some guards thought it was an inmate rag.”
Now in its second decade, hard work and persistence among SQNews staff, advisers, and numerous volunteers has earned the newspaper and some of its writers journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the California News Publishers Association.
In the last two decades, SQNews staff writers have also produced articles that appear in more than 30 different publications across North America.
“I believe that the tools of media are very instrumental in helping to achieve public safety,” said Brooks. “I consider it a privilege to be a part of San Quentin News.”
“People will always want access to information,” said McNamara in a 2016 SQNews interview. “The question is how will the information be delivered?” As wireless tablets are issued to inmates inside CDCR prisons, including San Quentin, McNamara’s seven-year-old question is even more relevant.
Since Brydon’s maiden voyage with SQNews 15 years ago, there have been seven other Editor-in-Chiefs: Michael Harris, Arnulfo T. Garcia, Ricky “Malik” Harris, Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, Jesse Vasquez, Marcus Henderson, and now Brooks.
From Brydon to Brooks, there have been 75 SQNews staff members, up to the present, and hundreds of past and present SQNews Journalism Guild Writers who contribute stories each month. Staff that have paroled maintain a 0% rate of recidivism.
“Life after prison is amazing,” Brydon wrote. “But my work to prepare myself paid off very well.” He wrote that he is 42 years clean and sober and lives with his wife in Chico, Calif. where they are active in their church.