Eleven years ago, former San Quentin warden Robert Ayers Jr. pulled the San Quentin News from the dust heap and revitalized the inmate-run publication more than 20 years after it had been officially suspended.
Ayers’ decision was a gamble. But it paid off to the benefit of thousands of prisoners and other readers around the world who learn about criminal justice, incarceration, rehabilitation and reentry from stories advancing social justice, written by incarcerated journalists.
“At that time, I wanted to get some quality journalism out and hopefully have other institutions do the same,” said Ayers during a recent visit to SQ News. He said as warden, he was used to doing things without a lot of oversight. So in 2008, when the News was restarted, the California Department of Corrections allowed it, as long as it stayed at San Quentin.
“I believed at the time good things were going to come of this,” said Ayers. “I saw this as a vehicle for people to know who inmates are.” He said he wanted to take the mystique out of who inmates are because “inmates are not a subset of humanity.”
In October, Ayers and his wife Peggy accepted an invitation to visit SQ News and attend one of its weekly staff meetings with some of the newspaper’s volunteer advisers. It was the first time he’d seen the newsroom since it relocated to the prison’s media center.
The celebrated podcast Ear Hustle was far in the future when Ayers brought SQ News back to life. Ayers said, “I didn’t have any notion of a podcast or anything else.” (The newspaper and Ear Hustle share space in the media center, but have separate staffs.) Ayers said when he revived the newspaper, he did not envision a journalism guild to teach new writers or that the SQ News would become so big.
Ayers became a correctional officer at San Quentin in 1968. Then, he said the SQ News was a four-page paper. “There was very little news.” It was a publication about news on the prison yard.
According to Ayers, rumor had it that outside influences tried to guide the content of SQ News in the turbulent 1980s. The paper was shut down in the mid-1980s, along with every other prison newspaper in the state. “The reason it was stopped is because it couldn’t be censored anymore,” he said. “That’s the truth.” California courts had sided with inmate journalists in a number of cases in which prison administrators attempted to censor content.
Ayers left San Quentin in 1986 as a lieutenant. Over the years, he’s worked at Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison Sacramento, and filled in as warden at California State Prison Los Angeles. When he was offered the job as warden at San Quentin, he said it took him about 30 seconds to make his decision.
Ayers returned to San Quentin in the spring of 2006. He said it was a place that he had “kinship with.” But it was known for doing things its own way. “I wanted to change that, but I also wanted to do something about the inmate population.”
Ayers: “if it can be broadcast and printed out there, why can’t it be printed in San Quentin News?”
When SQ News was publishing in the 1980s, it didn’t do much for the prison population, according to Ayers. Upon returning to the prison, he wanted to “get the staff respect back” and do something that would benefit the entire inmate population. He said he wanted to provide a means for people to build other useful skills in another venue.
Ayers said he believed the newspaper needed to be under the education department. “It was a hard sell to the principal at the time,” he said, so he went to the vocational printing instructor, John Wilkerson. “He was on it.”
One of Ayers’ key objectives was to provide good guidance. He said he wanted to build ethics. “Once you build that, a warden is not needed.” He said the advisors to the newspaper are providing role model status to the men who associate with and learn from people who are productive. He said when the men can look to people like that and form their own mind, that goes a long way because “the media is still a pillar of our society.”
Warden Ayers invited retired journalist John C. Eagan to spearhead the rebirth of the newspaper. Later, Ayer’s assistant, Lt. Rudy Luna, brought on retired journalists Steve McNamara and Joan Lisetor on board. McNamara was former owner and publisher of the Pacific Sun. Lisetor was an adviser to the newspaper in the 1980s. They all answered the call and are still volunteers with the SQ News along with dozens of others.
“This was not a small thing to take on,” said Ayers. “I’m not saying all of the resistance (to starting a newspaper in prison) was unfounded.”
When the News was being revised, Ayers said there was early dialog with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) about what it was going to allow to be printed.
Ayers argued that the men watch television, listen to radio, subscribe to newspapers and magazines so they already had access to information. “What are they going to print that’s going to set the world on fire?” he said.
When the newspaper was revived, “We were basically ignored because they (CDCR) didn’t know we existed,” said McNamara. “Since we’ve become much more visible, we’ve reached a good accommodation.”
Ex Warden Ayers, Steve McNamara and San Quentin News staff outside the SQ media center
The role CDCR represen- tatives have with SQ News:
• Check the factual content of material sourced directly or indirectly from CDCR or relating to the California criminal justice system.
• Check for content that actually or potentially endangers the safety of prisoners, CDCR personnel, the prison system or the public.
• Content deemed questionable is flagged with observations or suggested changes. Warranted revisions are made by the newspaper staff with the guidance of its professional advisers.
The SQ News requested that review of the paper by the CDCR, before publication, to not include re-writes or calls for changes in the newspaper’s content selection, writing style, balance, identified opinions or other aspects of journalistic choice. These are the purview of the newspaper staff with the guidance of its professional advisers.
“People all fear what they don’t know,” said Ayers. “One of the fears of starting a paper is there are those who think it will be an inmate rant rag. But when it’s the truth you can’t swat that away.”
There was never a story he worried about. “As far as I’m concerned, if it can be broad- cast and printed out there, why can’t it be printed in SQ News ?” said Ayers. There was, however, a story about administrative segregation that raised concern. Some people didn’t want it called “the hole,” but he asked what sense does that make because everyone out on the yard calls it “the hole.”
Regarding humanizing the men, Ayers said he wanted the men to humanize each other. “Everybody in prison, whether it’s staff or prisoners, tend to buy into the notion that men are inmates.”
When Ayers restarted the paper, he wanted people to be proud of it and to “remain open.”
“You’re doing your job,” he said to the News staff. “I think you’re part of that” (prison reform). “My only recommendation is to be open to growth.
“I still look at it online,” said Ayers. “This is certainly not something we were doing 11 years ago, and it won’t be the same two years from today.”
The staff and advisers all thanked Ayers and applauded his “courageous decision” to restart the newspaper.
“I think a lot of running a prison can be, and usually is, a mine field,” said Ayers. “You don’t always know where those mines are hidden. You don’t want to be the one to step on one and have it blow up.” He warned that once you take that big step into the unknown, “Have clarity in your own mind.”
Ayers stepped off, and left a legacy that he now shares with his predecessor, Clinton T. Duffy (SQ warden 1940-1952), who established SQ News in 1940. If not for Ayers, though, the News may have remained dormant for decades longer.
Editor’s Note: Today, SQ News prints 30,000 newspapers each month and distributes them to all 35 CDCR prisons, four juvenile facilities, university and public libraries, to hundreds of donors that include individuals outside of California. It publishes the quarterly magazine Wall City, the newsletter Inside SQ News and the website sanquentinnews.com. The state of California does not fund the paper. It is funded by grants from foundations and generous private donations. You can follow us on Twitter: @SanQuentinNews.