Today’s Solutions: December 01, 2021

The voices of incarcerated Americans often go unheard or are actively suppressed, but the increasing prevalence of prison newsrooms is shining a light on the experiences of incarcerated individuals and calling attention to the pressing need for reforms in the system. 

At San Quentin State Prison in San Francisco, The San Quentin News had been on a 20-year hiatus before being revived in 2008. The facility now has its own newsroom and is a hub for criminal justice reform and inmate advocacy. The paper gives many prisoners a sense of purpose and drive. They now have the platform to take their stories directly to the public and are in conversation with district attorneys, policymakers, and politicians to repeal laws that exacerbate mass incarceration. 

Prison newspapers began to hit their stride in the late 1880s, and today, most states have at least one prison-operated publication. The Angolite, perhaps the most well-known prison paper, was founded in 1953 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was the first prison publication to be nominated for a National Magazine Award. Prison media is changing with the times too. Ear Hustle, a podcast created by and about prisoners was launched in 2017 and has over 41 million downloads to date. It was named a finalist for the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for audio reporting.

Unfortunately, as politicians pushed anti-crime platforms in the 1980s and 90s, funding for prison publications began to decline and by 2014, there was only a handful left. 

The San Quentin News was revived by Warden Robert Ayers Jr. who came across old copies of the paper and recruited staff to bring it back. The first copy in 2008 was a four-page-long newspaper the incarcerated staff distributed by hand to each prison cellblock.

Despite being the most advanced prison newsroom in the country, San Quentin still faces challenges such as lack of internet access and censorship. The paper was banned mid-March with the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Despite setbacks, the prison’s media team is still a powerful platform to amplify marginalized voices. In addition to features on the Ear Hustle podcast, San Quentin also hosted FirstWatch, a video series founded by former San Quentin prisoner Adnan Khan which focuses on sharing the stories of prisoners.

Most importantly, the San Quentin News tells diverse stories of incarcerated individuals who are often portrayed as one dimensional by the mainstream media. Aly Tamboura, an early San Quentin News staff member who was paroled in 2016 told Politico, “You can’t change the hearts and minds of the voting constituency if we still use the dominant narrative that everyone in prison is a bad person who will get out and wreak havoc on our communities.”

The topics covered by the paper are wide-ranging from conditions in solitary housing units to suicide in prison. The paper creates a culture of critical thinking and rehabilitation for its writers and readers. Many journalists go on to continue working in media after their release. Miguel Quezada, a former managing editor who was paroled in 2018, went on to become a senior policy director for the nonprofit Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice.

Journalism is an incredibly important outlet for amplifying the voices of the marginalized, but without seeking out stories from these communities themselves, the culture of oppression will never change. Prison publications, like San Quentin News, are powerful solutions for empowering the incarcerated and previously incarcerated and changing public perception of America’s prison system and those who occupy it.

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