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Jessica Pishko: The News From San Quentin, Part 1

January 29, 2014

Part 1: A paper in the hands of every inmate.

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Image from Wikimedia via Riksarkivet

By Jessica Pishko

The editors of the San Quentin News have vowed to put a copy of their newspaper in the hands of every inmate in California. This is no easy task. The task is ambitious not only because California houses around 130,000 inmates (despite the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s new “re-alignment” policy – a response to a court order to reduce the California prison population to 137.5% of capacity, or around 110,000 inmates), but also because as one of the only inmate-produced newsletters in the country, San Quentin News faces a very specific set of challenges.

The San Quentin News staff produce a 20-page paper that matches any outside publication in quality and depth of reporting although, unlike most publications, the subject matter focuses on the world within the walls of San Quentin: sports rivalries, notable staff retirements, and the success of rehabilitative programs. Because the newspaper operates without any funding from federal or state sources, it funds its press run of 11,500 solely from private donors and grants. Since 2008, when the paper was reinstated after a hiatus, a group of more than 20 inmates write and edit the articles each month. The paper is currently printed by an outside print shop; it was originally printed in-house, but the prison print shop was closed in 2010 when funding for all programs within California programs was slashed.

Writing for and editing the San Quentin News is a meaningful activity for the men who produce it, but its presence and circulation has a wider importance as well: its stories illuminate the prison experience and give incarcerated individuals a voice that may influence discourse outside the prison walls. That the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world makes the role of prison newsletters all the more crucial.

The San Quentin News, like any prison writing, falls under the auspices of prison authorities, who retain ultimate control over what information enters and exits the prison walls.

In order to reach inmates in other California prisons, the San Quentin News must negotiate the administrative nightmares of the CDCR. Papers may be delivered to institutions, but not distributed. There’s no consistency to where or how the San Quentin News is provided to inmates, and prison authorities are under no obligation to provide easy access to the paper. Some prison librarians may place the newspaper in the library, providing inmates easy access, but in other institutions, the copies may sit in a mailroom, read by no one. To date, only 17 prisons out of 34 have agreed to accept copies of the San Quentin News, according to Steve McNamara, a veteran of the newspaper industry and a long-time advisor to the paper who helps the San Quentin News staff with layout and production.

In practice, First Amendment rights—like other rights in prison—can be curtailed as punishment.

Students from Berkeley’s MBA program have helped the San Quentin News create a long-term plan to increase circulation tenfold. John Spurlock, the team lead for the project, told me that expansion will be slow. A key factor to the expansion’s success, Spurlock emphasized, is branding. The San Quentin News provides a rehabilitative view of inmates and the prison. Most of the articles focus on the various programs within San Quentin that seek to provide inmates with anger-management skills, vocational training, and instruction. The paper also highlights notable staff members with long years of service. This was a selling point when now-retired Warden Robert Ayers Jr. revived the paper in 2008. The prison grapevine is notoriously unreliable, and the San Quentin News provides an outlet for inmates to write and read about released individuals, the successes of various rehabilitative programs, officers’ retirements, and sports rivalries.

Yet, the San Quentin News also reports on well-publicized problems in the California prison system – in July, inmates in Pelican Bay Prison in northern California initiated a hunger strike to protest the conditions and use of solitary confinement; the hunger strike grew to include 30,000 inmates across the state. The San Quentin News ran a front-page story about the Pelican Bay hunger strike, highlighting the list of demands particular to the striker condemned prisoners at San Quentin. Such demands included the elimination of secret informants to out gang affiliations and better medical care. The San Quentin News has also covered stories on the increase in the number of lifers as well as the on-going federal court mandate for CDCR to reduce the prison population to comply with the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. However, the paper is clear that its overall mission is not to create conflict with the authorities, but rather to provide solace and meaning for those who write for the paper, some of whom are sentenced to lengthy terms and are unlikely to ever see the outside. For those with life-long sentences, which includes much of the editorial staff (for example, the Editor-in-Chief has a current sentence of 65 to life), writing for the newspaper brings a great deal of self-reflection and purpose to what would otherwise be an intolerable prison sentence. Working on the paper, I was repeatedly told, means a lot to these men.

Despite its gruesome past as one of the most violent and gang-ruled prisons in California, San Quentin is somewhat unique among penal institutions. Because it is located in the heart of the Bay Area, it boasts more volunteers and more services than other California state prisons. Volunteers have easier access, as opposed to other prisons located in remote, inaccessible areas. It makes sense, then, that a newspaper renaissance of sorts should happen here. But, what are the protections for writers whose liberty is, by design, curtailed? The San Quentin News, like any prison writing, falls under the auspices of prison authorities, who retain ultimate control over what information enters and exits the prison walls.

Legally, inmates retain all of the protections afforded citizens in the Bill of Rights , including the right to free speech (although anyone convicted of a felony cannot vote until he or she has completed parole). In Turner v. Safley, Justice O’Connor wrote, “Prison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” The Supreme Court held that prisoners retain free speech rights so long as they do not interfere with the penological interests of prisons, which is a way of saying that prison authorities can limit the speech of inmates if they couch their rationale in terms of maintaining “security” and order. This is a fairly broad standard, interpreted to cover everything from items that may incite racially-motivated violence to photos deemed to have pornographic content. To further muddy the waters, rules vary from institution to institution, and interpretation of those rules can vary from individual to individual.

The San Quentin News rigorously avoids reporting on any events—mistreatment or riots, for example—that might result in retaliation measures.

Justice O’Connor’s analysis aside, in practice First Amendment rights—like other rights in prison—can in fact be curtailed as punishment. The CDCR retains ultimate control over prisoners’ lives; corrections officers determine what work assignments inmates receive, where and whether they are transferred, and how punishments, like being sent to SHU (Segregated Housing Unit), are administered. The CDCR retaliated against the Pelican Bay hunger strikers by cutting off their communication with the outside world in addition to placing the leaders in “administrative segregation,” a particularly brutal form of solitary confinement. The San Quentin News rigorously avoids reporting on any events—mistreatment or riots, for example—that might result in retaliation measures.

Walter Rideau, editor of the esteemed inmate-produced publication of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, The Angolite, points out in his memoir that “the biggest problem out there is that the general public and those with power to change things are seriously misinformed about what prison life is all about.” It is notoriously difficult for journalists to gain access to prisons. Preserving the free speech rights of incarcerated individuals not only will shed light on the prison experience in a way that traditional media outlets cannot, but it will also bring more voices into our participatory democracy, allowing an ever-increasing class of individuals the right to contribute to the national conversation. Inmate-produced newspapers, however, are incredibly rare, which is why the San Quentin News is so remarkable.

Today, the wide-spread availability of the internet has the potential to permit more voices to enter the fray. San Quentin News maintains a website where they post the paper for anyone to access. However, inmates don’t have access to this medium, and it seems very unlikely that this will change anytime soon. Changing current regulations would not serve the interests of prison officials, and, compared to the current list of humanitarian crises in state prisons, access to computers may be low in the list. But, given the power of the prison-industrial complex, it is reasonable to question the dissemination of information from our prison systems, and to recognize the value of the voices from inside.

Stay tuned later in the week for part 2 of Jessica Pishko’s series on the San Quentin News: “Crime and punishment and disapproved content.”

Jessica Pishko graduated with a J.D. from Harvard Law School and received an M.F.A. from Columbia University. She practiced corporate law, specializing in securities fraud, and represented death penalty clients and victims of domestic abuse pro bono. You can follow her on Twitter

In partnership with Free Word and the Open Society Foundations, Guernica‘s next issue will focus on Free Expression. Every day this week, Guernica Daily brings you a story illuminating a gray area of free expression:

Fauz Kabra: On Jowhara AlSaud’s Dual Censorhip

Emily Strasser: Signal Fires on the Tibetan Plateau

Xiaolu Guo: Why Do We Still Pretend We Are Free?

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