Before the Wright brothers took flight or Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, before there were cars, trucks, ballpoint pens and zippers, before there was The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine or radio and television, there was The Prison Mirror, a newspaper founded in 1887 at Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. It was the brainchild of one prisoner, and its startup was bankrolled by a dozen more, including the Younger brothers of the infamous Jesse James Gang. It was the first publication in America produced solely by inmates from inside a prison, and at 127 years and counting it is the oldest continuously published prison journal in America.
The Mirror was wildly successful from the start, drawing numerous advertisers from the outside world and thousands of subscribers who were hungry to read about the hidden world of prison. The newspaper saw itself as a trailblazer, a vehicle for truth-telling and thus “the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform.” It declared on the front page of its maiden issue that it was completely independent, operating “without official interference, and solely in charge of the [inmate] managing editor.”
Its launch was not without controversy among free-world journals, whose critiques raised the question of what the role of a prisoner publication should be, a question still unsettled today. The Chicago Herald urged the newspaper to be “defiant,” and said that instead of praising the warden and guards it should show them “in their hideous deformity.” The Minneapolis Tribune, meanwhile, apparently didn’t like being the subject of mild criticism by the Mirror and flatly declared that it “ought to be summarily suppressed or else reformed in all its departments.” Mirror editor W. F. Mirick shot back that the newspaper would brook no interference: “When it is made the organ of any official…,” he wrote, “when the right to speak the truth is denied it, then indeed has its death-knell been sounded.”
Speaking the truth from inside prison—especially about prison—has always been a tricky issue, complicated by the need to survive in a totalitarian environment where the administration can arbitrarily shut down your publication, guards can make your life miserable and you have to sleep unprotected among your readers. Prison journalists, then and now, walk a tightrope between opposing expectations. The administration wants to be presented in a flattering light, as honorable caretakers of their wards who, on the other hand, want the publication to be a gripe sheet to rail against the guards, the conditions of their confinement and real or imagined injustices. Prison journalists learn early on that “truth” for one side in the us-against-them world of prison is not necessarily what the other side sees as true. Their survival—in their job or in their bunk—depends on their ability to be diplomats, even more than journalists, who can to some extent explain each side to the other. When they accomplish this, the publication is a huge benefit to all. Stress levels on both sides decline because it is difficult to hate what you understand, even if you don’t like it.
Mirror editor Mirick lost his battle to speak the truth only as he saw it. Within seven years of its birth, the Mirror’s fierce independence was compromised as the warden began to review it before it was printed; as the years passed, its ability to cast a critical eye on the prison and its management vanished. Instead, it began serving up noncontroversial fare on the value of self-discipline and the virtues of Christianity. Losing its right to speak truth to power did not kill it, but forced it to adapt to altered circumstances.