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Writing on the Prison Wall: How Prisons Suppress Prison Journalism

On June 15, 2023, Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) published a report on suppression of prison journalism from the inside. The bottom line? Practicing journalism while imprisoned in most states is “extremely difficult and sometimes risky.”

News reporting by prisoners dates back to the 1800s. Until the 1990s, dozens of papers described incarcerated life, including San Quentin News in California; The Angolite at Louisiana State Penitentiary; The Echo in Texas state prisons; and The Maximum Times at Tennessee’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. Since then, though, many prison newspapers have folded or, due to censorship by prison officials, are no longer sources of hard-hitting journalism.

There is no shortage of talented incarcerated writers, though. Some have begun writing for outside publications. New York state prisoner John J. Lennon, a contributing editor at Esquire, has written for the New York Times and The Atlantic. He was a finalist for the 2019 National Magazine Award for feature writing. After her release from a New York prison, Keri Blakinger parlayed her writing skills into a position with The Marshall Project. The incarcerated writers who report for Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News are successful journalists.

Due to that writing for outside publications, prison officials have cracked down on imprisoned journalists with restrictive and often vague policies—and sometimes explicit retaliation. This is nothing new; as he recounted in Committing Journalism, California prisoner Dannie Martin faced retaliation from prison officials, including transfer to an out-of-state facility, when he wrote articles for a local newspaper in the late 1980s. He sued but lost. See: Martin v. Rison, 741 F.Supp. 1406 (N.D. Cal. 1990).

More recently, New York prison officials introduced a policy in May 2023 to suppress prison journalism; it was rescinded following a backlash after it was made public. “Prisons don’t want you to know what happens inside,” PPI wrote. “As more news outlets publish incarcerated journalists, more [prison] departments will consider policies to control what information makes it out into the world.”

According to PPI, only the federal Bureau of Prisons explicitly prohibits prisoners from ‘‘acting as a reporter.” Yet just four states—Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan and Texas—allow prisoners to correspond with media outlets through “privileged” correspondence, which is treated like legal mail. The report included a state-by-state breakdown of policies related to prison journalism, finding 14 states bar prisoners from receiving payment for their work. Partial bans on prisoner journalism exist in 19 states. Lack of privacy and the ability of prison officials to restrict or confiscate personal property also make prison journalism difficult.

Oregon prisoners have an explicit right to publish and be compensated for their writing, though no state equipment or supplies can be used. Still the mail policy in state prisons says prisoners “shall not conduct business transactions by mail” without approval—and writing for outside publications could be considered a business transaction. Illinois prisoners can submit their writing for publication but are not allowed to “enter into contractual agreements with publishers for a regularly published column,” restricting the ability to reach a broad audience. See: How Prisons Suppress Prison Journalism, PPI (June 2023).

There has been a successful challenge to prison rules prohibiting an incarcerated journalist from participating in a publishing business or profession. In August 1998 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of PLN columnist Mumia Abu-Jumal, holding that he was “likely to show that [the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’] discriminatory application of the business or profession rule to his writing is an exaggerated response to the Department’s security objectives because there are obvious easy alternatives to address the Department’s concerns.” See: Abu-Jamal v. Price, 154 F.3d 128 (3d Cir. 1998).  

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