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PLN mentioned in "Prisoners Join the Ranks of U.S. Journalists", Jan. 1, 2010.
PLN mentioned in "Prisoners Join the Ranks of U.S. Journalists" - 2010

Prisoners Join the Ranks of U.S. Journalists

by Te-Ping Chen

April 28, 2010

Reporters covering the U.S. criminal justice system will have to hustle to scoop the new wave of journalists that the Federal Bureau of Prisons has recently unleashed: prisoners.

For years, people locked in federal prison have been barred from publishing bylined stories in magazines and newspapers, a ban ostensibly intended to protect writers from potential retaliation. But in 2007, the 10th Circuit court ruled that the ban blocks prisoners' free speech, and now, the Bureau of Prisons has finally amended its regulations. (Hey, it only took them three years.)

Most state prisons don't block prisoners from writing for publications, and a number of federal prisoners have managed to get around the ban in years past, indulged by wardens who look the other way. Former major league baseball pitcher Denny McClain, for example, wrote for a sports publication while in federal prison.

The timing of the BOP's move comes, fortuitously enough, with the publication of one crusading prison journalist's memoir. It's the story of Wilbert Rideau, who went to prison at age 19 after being convicted of a bank teller's murder in a robbery gone wrong. Dubbed by Life magazine in 1993 as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America," while in prison, Rideau won some of journalism's top honors — including the George Polk Award — for his jailhouse reporting. Likewise, the prison publication that he ran out of Louisiana's Angola Prison, the Angolite, was the first of its kind to ever receive a National Magazine Award nomination. (While in prison, he also served as a correspondent for NPR's Fresh Air.)

There are other veteran prison reporters that have helped lead the way. For example, Dannie Martin (convicted of bank robbery in 1980) contributed regularly for the San Francisco Chronicle, starting in 1986. His first story dealt with his prison's growing HIV epidemic. (Two years later, though, after his article "The Gulag Mentality" criticized the prison's new warden, Martin was promptly punished and shipped off to federal prison outside Phoenix, AZ.)

Likewise, fully 95% of the articles that appear in Paul Wright's Prison Legal News, another beacon in the field, are written by prisoners. Prisoners, for example, like John Dannenberg, who's published over 1,000 articles for PLN as the outlet's California correspondent, most of which don't bear his name.

The BOP's latest announcement hasn't attracted much attention, but for free speech advocates, it's a major victory. For prison reformers and taxpayers alike, it's also a much-needed injection into the overall health of the criminal justice system.



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