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California: Prisoner-Run Journalism Thrives with San Quentin News, Ear Hustle

When The Prison Mirror was founded in 1887 at Stillwater Prison in Minnesota, newspapers were commonplace in prisons. The Prison Mirror asserted it was “the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform.” By the middle of the 20th century, most states had at least one prison-run newspaper. Consider The Angolite, which was founded at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, in 1953.

While prison newspapers enjoyed success early on, they lost popularity during the “tough-on-crime” political rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s. In the decades after, prison newspapers dwindled from a high of 250 in 1959 to fewer than a dozen in 2014, according to a report by The Nation. Most of the newspapers were shuttered as prison populations swelled and budgets for prison educational programs were slashed.

The award-winning San Quentin News, which was founded in 1940, began to have clashes over content with prison administrators in the 1970s and 1980s. The warden fired everyone involved in an article published in 1980 that featured photographs of bird droppings in the prison mess hall. The matter ended up in court, and the judge sided with the prisoner journalists.

Another lawsuit out of Soledad State Prison affirmed free speech protections for prison newspapers. Rather than comply with the court’s order, prison officials closed the San Quentin News.

Then, in 2008, San Quentin Warden Robert Ayers, Jr., stumbled across old copies of the San Quentin News. He decided to reinstate the paper in an attempt to “rekindle some pride, some dignity to both the staff and inmate population,” he was quoted as saying.

He recruited outside advisers who were former journalists to assist five prisoners to produce the first four-page edition, which published 5,000 copies that guards passed out to prisoners. By June 2020, over 20,000 copies were being printed monthly.

Journalists at San Quentin have reported on conditions in special housing units, prison suicide, sex in prison, and about men convicted of child abuse. They also print reports about legal developments that impact ex-felons, groups and persons involved in prison reform, and special events inside the prison. They avoid criticizing prison administrators or topics that may be deemed a security threat, such as gang violence.

According to the book Prison Truth, in the 12 years since the San Quentin News was revived, none of the prisoners who left the media lab have returned to prison. Prison officials were so impressed by the program that they allowed the media lab to expand into other mediums.

One of those was a radio project called the San Quentin Prison Report. That inspired Nigel Poor, a visual artist volunteering on the project, to produce a podcast. Ear Hustle was launched in 2017. It focuses on life inside prison rather than on corruption or mismanagement inside prisons.

“I wanted to talk about the three strikes law in every story,” said former prisoner Earlonne Woods, whose 25 years to life sentence under that law was commuted in 2018 by former Governor Jerry Brown, about his work with Ear Hustle. “But that’s not what this was about. It’s not about hammering people over the head that this policy is wrong. Instead, we said, hey, let’s find someone who has a story. And maybe, it just so happened that story was about three strikes.”

San Quentin News reporters have gone on to create their own projects upon release. Former reporter Adnan Khan created FirstWatch, a YouTube video series that highlights issues such as men’s “prison’s journeys” and their views on political candidates.

A visit to the San Quentin News in 2012 by Marisa Rodriguez, an assistant district attorney for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, changed her perspective. After listening to the paper’s staffers, she “realized this group of men was a potential think tank for criminal justice reform.”

That led to the paper’s then editor-in-chief, Arnulfo Garcia, to start the San Quentin News Forums, which began in 2012 and continues today. Rodriguez brought a group of prosecutors who met in a circle with men Garcia selected. They discussed what led them to a life of crime and their rehabilitation in prison. By 2017, the paper had hosted 14 forums with more than two dozen prosecutors from across the country.

“I think that what you’ve done here is remarkable,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier at a 2015 forum. The problem “is that prisons don’t necessarily want this,” said Yukari Kane, a San Quentin News adviser.

“There’s a perception that if you bring journalism in, you’ll create a rebellion inside,” said Shaheen Pasha, who co-founded the Prison Journalism Project with Kane. 


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