San Quentin News celebrates freedom of the press in
a look back on a historic journey of award-winning
prison journalism spanning more than eight decades
As World Press Freedom Day is celebrated, San Quentin News marks 82 years since it was established by warden Clinton T. Duffy. What began as a four-page publication, written and printed on prison grounds in 1940, has developed today into a 21st-century multimedia organization. And it is still the only inmate-run publication working at such a capacity.
Alongside the newspaper, the incarcerated news staff produces the magazine Wall City, the newsletter Inside SQ News, a website, video productions, and social media content for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The First Amendment’s freedom of the press also extends to the incarcerated.
World Press Freedom Day is on May 3. It’s a day of reflection for the SQNews staff and among other media professionals. The day is also recognized by the United Nations. It’s a day that serves as a reminder to governments of their need to give deference to their commitment to press freedom and professional ethics.
“Just as importantly, World Press Freedom Day is a day of support for media which are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom. It is also a day of remembrance for those journalists who lost their lives in the pursuit of a story,” Jeremy Pelofsky of the public relations firm Finsbury, LLC wrote in an email.
Before warden Robert Ayers Jr. lifted SQNews from its 20-year hiatus in 2008, the newspaper, and other inmate-run publications, had challenged the prison administrations in court on issues such as censorship.
In 1983, SQNews editor Charles “EZ” Williams filed a habeas petition in Marin County Superior Court, contending, among other issues, that “the guidelines of the Department of Corrections for the publication of inmate newspapers are constitutionally invalid on their face.”
In 1982, the prison administration that oversaw the Star News at Soledad “had rejected two articles which spoke favorably of collective organization and bargaining by the prisoners.” That case was Bailey v. Loggins.
“World Press Freedom Day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993, following a Recommendation adopted at the 26th session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991,” Pelofsky wrote. “This in turn was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence.”
Author James McGrath Morris (Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars) wrote exhaustively about prisoners’ plight with journalism. He chronicled the many publications produced behind bars, beginning with the first known inmate newspaper, Forlorn Hope, published in 1800 at a debtors prison in New York. The book discovered a quote from SQNews.
“After all, if the prisoner is not championed by his own people, just who the hell can he expect to do anything for him? And how else, except through the prison paper, is his side to be brought forward?” – San Quentin News, circa 1942
“When the prison gates slam behind an inmate, he does not lose his human quality; his mind does not become closed to ideas; his intellect does not cease to feed on a free and open interchange of opinions; his yearning for self-respect does not end; nor is his quest for self-realization concluded. If anything, the needs for identity and self-respect are more compelling in the dehumanizing prison environment.” – Procunier v. Martinez, USSC 1974
Since the rebirth of SQ News 14 years ago, it has grown from printing 5,000 newspapers each month to 35,000, most of which are shipped to other prisons inside the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Ironically, SQNews was the first California prison newspaper launched in the new decade, century and millennium, after becoming the last California prison newspaper to shut down in the 1980s.
“It’s yours to lose” were the words of caution Warden Ayers instilled in the men who run SQNews, but the advice extends to San Quentin’s entire media center. In January 2018, the newspaper celebrated its 100th issue, since Ayers revived it. Nearly five years later, and after nearly two years of COVID-related lockdowns and high staff turnover—due to early paroles—the newspaper is quickly approaching its 150th issue.
Throughout its history, many of its writers have received individual awards for journalism. In 2020, the California News Publishers Association awarded editor in chief Marcus Henderson, senior editor Juan Haines and staff writer Anthony Caravalho with its California Journalism Awards.
In 2017, the Society of Professional Journalists presented Haines with the Silver Heart Award “for giving voice to the voiceless.” In 2016, associate editor Kevin D. Sawyer received The James Aronson Award for Exemplary Community Journalism.
In 2014, San Quentin News was presented The James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
According to Morris, SQNews has been an award-winning publication for half a century. It won the American Penal Press award for the Best Prison Newspaper in 1966, 1967, 1972 and 1981. In 1968, it also won the Charles C. Clayton award, named after him for reportedly being the first person to teach journalism inside of a prison. He was also the founder of the award competition, which was sponsored by the Southern Illinois University Department of Journalism from 1965 to 1990.
On May 3, and after nearly a century of inmates reporting from inside California’s oldest prison, freedom is still found through the press. “It is a date to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom, and to assess the state of press freedom worldwide,” Pelofsky wrote.