Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?

Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?

Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?

For 127 years, prison newspapers have struggled to speak truth to the outside world.


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.

Like all prisoner publications, the Mirror’s journalistic freedoms have waxed and waned throughout its history depending on who was warden. Its current editor, Matt Gretz, notes that the prison administration is “very sensitive to content that they perceive as negative [and] how the paper might reflect on them when an outside audience reads it.” The newspaper goes through three levels of administrative review.

Despite whatever restrictions have been placed on the staff’s freedom of expression, the Mirror is a first-class monthly publication. In addition to printing policy updates, legal resources, articles on health, inmate poetry, art and puzzles, it features well-researched articles on systemic problems in the criminal justice system. One such piece, “Arrested Development,” traced the roots of harsh sentencing in the juvenile justice system to the 1989 Central Park Jogger rape case in which the hyperbolic term “super predators” was born, and reviewed the latest developments in brain science regarding youngsters’ inability to consider long-term consequences of their actions. If the Mirror is not allowed to write about the ugly underbelly of daily life at Stillwater, it was still free to expose (“Squeeze Play”) how $1.2 million in profits from the prison canteen—historically used to cover library costs, movies and other inmate programs not covered by the Department of Corrections—were siphoned off by Minnesota lawmakers in 2011 to offset budget cuts in the state’s general operating fund.

Interestingly, the prisoner-produced San Quentin News ran a similar article, exposing an attempt in 2012 by the California legislature to funnel $68 million from the Inmate Welfare Fund to county governments to help pay for “realignment,” the state’s scheme to comply with the United States Supreme Court’s order to reduce the state prison population, in part by simply shifting inmates from state facilities to county lockups. After the San Quentin News article surfaced, the inmate-generated monies in the Fund were again directed to pay for academic and vocational education, substance abuse recovery, recreation and re-entry programs for prisoners in state custody. This is journalism that makes a difference in the quality of life for those behind bars, the kind of story that the mainstream media either don’t know about or don’t care about.

The Mirror and the San Quentin News are among a precious few prisoner-produced publications that now exist in America. After the Mirror’s early success, prison newspapers slowly began to flourish in the early decades of the twentieth century, and by mid-century most states had at least one inmate-produced publication. In 1965, Charles C. Clayton, a professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University, launched the annual Penal Press Awards, which were sponsored by the university. For the winners, the contest validated the efforts of mostly self-taught writers and brought new awareness of prison issues to the outside world at a time when the public still viewed prisoners as redeemable and prisons as places not only for punishment but also for rehabilitation. Often referred to as the Pulitzers of prison journalism, the Penal Press Awards were highly competitive, drawing more than a thousand entries a year at their height. The Awards continued for twenty-five years until shortly after Clayton’s death, during which time the penal press peaked and then began its decline.

After the Supreme Court declared the application of the death penalty capricious and cleared the nation’s death rows with its 1972 Furman v Georgia ruling, politicians found get-tough-on crime rhetoric paid big dividends. New laws and policies ballooned prison populations, strained budgets and led to an increasingly hostile attitude by the public toward prisoners. Journalism behind bars nosedived. From a high of 250 in 1959, prison newspapers and magazines today number less than a dozen. Four of those—The Angolite of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Mirror, the San Quentin News and The Echo of Texas’s Huntsville prison—won the Penal Press Awards multiple times as the best publication in their category.

The Echo was shut down after staff writer Jorge Renaud investigated an April 2000 system-wide lockdown and published two stories authorities thought were critical of it. The newspaper has been revived and is now putting out ten issues a year, but largely because it is “the most efficient and cost effective way to provide information from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to offenders,” according to Bambi Kiser, Public Information Officer for the Windham School District, which oversees production of The Echo.

Like the Mirror, The Angolite has seen a shift from its birth in 1976 as an uncensored magazine that could run award-winning exposés on subjects such as prison rape, inadequate medical care or an electric chair that mutilated those executed in it to a publication now censored, reflecting the current administration’s sensitivity to being portrayed in an unflattering light. The Angola Warden declined to be interviewed or to allow The Angolite’s staff or supervisor to be interviewed for this article.

Although a review of recent editions revealed a dearth of internal reportage on ordinary prison life and a heavy emphasis on religion, The Angolite remains a first-rate publication by virtue of its lengthy features that tackle serious criminal justice issues. A pair of recent articles, “Stolen Time” and “The Cost of Lost Time” peer outside the prison gates to examine the ordeal exonerees in America face in trying to put their life back together in an unwelcoming society, sometimes after decades of wrongful incarceration and often with no compensation from the state. Meanwhile, “Slowly Fade Away” looks inward. After giving a national overview of research on degenerative brain disorders, the article draws a vivid portrait of inmates who suffer from dementia—who may head out for work fully dressed minus trousers, or sleep in someone else’s bed or become disoriented, paranoid or aggressive. The intimate perspective on this problem among the incarcerated could only have come from a prison journalist, who lives with the problem and keenly feels the lack of a solution to it.

At a time when the remaining handful of prisoner publications have been muzzled, the San Quentin News (SQN), revived in 2008 after a twenty-six-year hiatus, is on an opposite trajectory. The inmate journalists receive advice and assistance from a panel of professional journalists and graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Berkeley’s school of business has helped SQN develop a plan to expand its content and extend its reach into every prison in the state. Its staff has already grown from eight to twenty, and the prison’s Journalism Guild is an incubator for well-trained writers. It has joined the digital age with a Twitter account and a website where visitors can read current and all past issues. Managing Editor Juan Haines declares his goal is “expanding the newspaper to the point where mainstream media cannot ignore its relevancy or content.”

Haines says “the administration has not placed any limitations on San Quentin News and points to the paper’s ability to criticize prison policies as evidence of its relative freedom from censorship. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine other prison publications today being allowed to report on hunger strikes and massive prisoner protests of solitary confinement practices in their state’s facilities. The publication enjoys strong administrative support. Public Information Officer Lt. Sam Robinson says it’s rare that the administration objects to anything in the paper and that the general policy is hands-off. But there are exceptions: earlier this year, the newspaper was suspended for forty-five days for replacing a photo that had already been approved in layout by the administration. Because the staff failed to follow the editorial review process, all the offending copies that had been printed with the second photo were destroyed. It is important to note, though, that the suspension was about procedure, not content the administration found unflattering or uncomfortable.

San Quentin administrators seem to appreciate that a newspaper that sometimes prints articles that are not flattering to the institution has more credibility among both inmates and outside readers than a publication that prints only good news. Their trust in their inmate journalists has reaped a rare reward: in February, the San Quentin News was honored with a James Madison Freedom of Information Award by the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists.

The Mirror, The Angolite and the San Quentin News are the only three prisoner-produced publications around today that do serious reporting on criminal justice issues. Their role in American journalism is a vital one, as they provide society with a perspective on public policies not otherwise attainable. Editor Juan Haines says, “SQN serves the public with a unique and valuable perspective on the impact of criminal justice policy, which addresses the need of policymakers…for specific information about fundamental causes of mass incarceration.”

Deirdre Garvey, who formerly supervised the Mirror staff, echoes that thought: “When we print intelligent and balanced pieces, we do a lot to change the politics in the state.” Editor Matthew Gretz says, “[H]opefully we’re planting seeds for change, so as a society we can eventually go from ‘tough on crime’ to ‘smart on crime’.”

Prison journalism, at its most basic, is the equivalent of a city newspaper, a vehicle for communication, which “is vital for a community’s well-being, no matter where the community is” says James M. LeBlanc, secretary of Louisiana’s Department of Corrections and former warden of Dixon Correctional Institute, which publishes Straight Low Magazine. Its editor, Jan Joseph Porretto agrees, noting that a credible inmate publication can “dispel rumors” that travel along the prison grapevine, “by informing the prison population about [the warden’s] plans, his philosophies, his goals and mission,” and of course changes in policies. But the communication goes both ways: Mirror supervisor Deirdre Garvey says Stillwater’s newspaper “helps staff understand what’s going on in the minds of prisoners, which is good for security.” In this remark, she echoes the sentiments of C. Paul Phelps, who, as head of the Louisiana prison system, reinvented The Angolite in 1976 by freeing it from censorship because he believed if inmates and prisoners could honestly share their thoughts and stories in the magazine, it would reduce the us-versus-them mentality that prevails in prisons.

An important part of what prison publications do is highlight inmates’ successes in prison. Articles that spotlight excellence in sports or participation in civic and self-help programs or inmates graduating from academic or vocational programs are a staple of prison publications, and Bambi Kiser, supervisor of The Echo, believes that these can be “motivational and encouraging” to inmates. Being featured in the prison newspaper for attaining a GED or earning certification in auto repair or carpentry is for many inmates the first time in their life they have ever been recognized for doing anything positive. It can, says Mirror editor Matt Gretz, “define them in a new and powerful way” and give them newfound confidence and spur them on to further achievement. The photos memorializing their accomplishments or good works are especially prized by inmates as treasured keepsakes attesting to what they are about in prison.

Another staple of prison publications are sections reserved for inmates’ self-expression, ranging from letters to the editor to poetry, fiction, cartoons and artwork. Tennessee Department of Corrections spokeswoman Cindy Dunning says of the six newsletters published at and distributed only within penal facilities in that state that they are “a creative outlet for offenders to display positive talents, abilities and achievements.” Again, publication of their work is powerful validation for inmates and an incentive to do more.

Not so long ago it was common for Americans to believe that a criminal could redeem himself and earn a second chance to live in free society, but attitudes have hardened over the past twenty years. Stillwater’s Deirdre Garvey says that the Mirror “is able to show a side of incarcerated people that isn’t the stereotype.” Examples abound in the penal press of articles featuring inmates volunteering as hospice workers in their prison, growing crops for the local food bank, making Christmas toys for poor children in the hobby-shop, or sheltering and training abandoned or stray dogs as companion pets or service animals. These are the kind of humanizing stories that seldom make their way into the mainstream media but could do a lot to help change social attitudes about our country’s warehoused prisoners. Secretary LeBlanc says the prison publications in Louisiana “give correctional facilities opportunities to highlight programs and initiatives that change lives for the better.” Speaking from the inmate perspective, Matt Gretz says, “With the Mirror we can show society that many people in prison are taking responsibility, are changing, are not bad people for life.”

It’s tempting to look at the paucity of prison publications in America today and say the death knell has sounded on the penal press. But the handful that are still around are doing very good work, planting seeds of change, moving into the digital age with vigor, and planning a renaissance. And that’s a good thing, especially considering they do it without much encouragement or help from their professional counterparts on the outside.


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