What if you had a chance to hear an inmate’s perspective on some of the country’s most controversial debates in the criminal justice system? Would you want to know how they feel about overcrowding in prisons or transgender relations behind bars?
In an effort to provide those incarcerated with a positive outlet, as well as giving the world well-reported journalism (held to the same standards as other established publications), the San Quentin News is fielding reporters from an unlikely place: California’s San Quentin Prison.
The staff of 15 — which is comprised of male felons serving time for crimes ranging from burglary and home invasion to murder and a Ponzi scheme — publishes a monthly newspaper with a circulation of 11,500 readers. The paper was founded in 1940, but six years ago, it was revived as a serious journalistic publication, according to the New York Times.
In a trailer next to the prison yard, reporters and editors pour over stories on topical issues including the availability of bras for transgender inmates and a federal court order regarding mental health care for death row prisoners.
Managing editor Juan Haines, 56, mandates his reporters use “boots on the ground” journalism in tackling tough issues.
“It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” said Haines, who is serving a sentence of 55 years to life for a bank robbery. “We can go right into the yard and get a quote about how inmates are affected by policy decisions.”
“The Pulse of San Quentin,” as the paper calls itself, is distributed to 17 prisons as well as the 3,855 people at San Quentin. Other topics covered include sports stories on the San Quentin Giants and the A’s as well as entertainment, baby announcements, man-on-the-street interviews and holiday greetings. For members of the public, an annual subscription costs $40.
The subscriptions, along with donations and grants, fund the printing and distribution. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations does not contribute any funding, but prison authorities approve all content. Earlier this year, the news operation was suspended for 45 days for swapping a photo without approval.
But the paper is not alone in its enterprise. Volunteers and students from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkley offer editorial and research support. Richard Lindsey, a former staff member who received parole last year, also maintains his connection to the paper by pouring over studies from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Pew Research Center and other scholarly sources to assist reporters. Students from the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at UC Berkley have advised the staff on developing a 12-year business plan that includes increasing the number of paid subscribers to subsidize the paper for free copies for inmates.
“When they [prisoners] get involved and see they’re accomplishing something, that could be the one positive tick mark in the ‘good’ column for them,” said former San Quentin warden Robert L. Ayers, Jr.
With writing, he said, “they start expressing themselves in ways other than physical or violent means.”
Ayers revived the publication from the “inmate rant rag” it was into journalistic enterprise that it now is. Though he received pushback, he believes it’s an important outlet for San Quentin’s inmates.
“I’m just trying to give back, to deal with the rips and tears I’ve made in the universe,” said one of the staff members and inmate Glenn Padgett. The 50-year-old, known as Luke, stabbed a man to death and set fire to his home to conceal the crime at the age of 33.
But the work is more than a means of redemption. In fact, more recently the Northern California chapter of Society of Professional Journalists recognized the San Quentin News with one of its James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.
Perhaps it’s just an exercise of the mind for some reporters, but this newspaper is setting out to prove that sometimes the best form of journalism comes from giving a voice to the unheard.