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Jessica Pishko: The News from San Quentin, Part 2

January 31, 2014

Crime and punishment and “disapproved content.”

Click here for Part 1.

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Image from Wikimedia Commons

By Jessica Pishko

In the course of reporting on the San Quentin News, I received word that the paper was temporarily suspended. The timing coincided with a favorable article in the L.A. Times, which mentioned a book review that prison administration had blocked due to its potential to aggravate racial tensions. (California separates all inmates by race; the rationale is that it prevents gang-motivated violence.) At the same time, the Facebook page previously titled the “San Quentin News” changed its name and clarified that it was not affiliated with the newspaper. I reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for an official comment and got the vague response that “The newspaper industry has journalistic standards and a checks and balances system where copy, photographs, graphics and other content goes through an editing process. The San Quentin News is no exception. On January 1, 2013, production of the San Quentin News was suspended for 45 days because inmates circumvented the editorial process by publishing disapproved content. The newspaper will resume production on February 15, 2014.”

The trouble with prisons is that everything happens behind closed doors, large bastions of concrete and barbed wire. Even more restrictive than the physical enclosures are the psychological ones—inmates’ incoming and outgoing communications are monitored, they don’t have access to the internet (a marked deprivation in today’s age), and, in some cases, they may have limited access to interpersonal communication as a whole.

An article about Black History Month, for example, was eliminated at the request of prison staff.

The San Quentin News has been shut down before. Its original incarnation, the Wall City News, was founded in the 1920s, and was shut down during the 30s. It was restarted under the name San Quentin News in the 1940s by Warden Clinton Duffy, a celebrated progressive warden who—after supervising over 90 executions—became an outspoken advocate against the death penalty. After being shut down again, the paper was revived in its current form in 2008 by Warden Robert Ayers, Jr., who wanted the paper to be part of his legacy of trying to promote a more rehabilitative view of San Quentin.

Because there are no clear free speech guidelines for inmate journalists, the San Quentin News must walk a fine line. Aside from the usual concerns about libel, the reporters must exercise additional judgment and caution about the articles and subjects it chooses to cover: SQN’s writers assiduously avoid any discussion of riots, the causes of lockdowns, and anything about the regular strip and cell searches they must endure. The paper does cover a variety of topics and tries to keep an upbeat attitude about the possibility of finding meaning through incarceration while also facilitating good relations between staff and inmates; for example, there are articles about retired corrections officers alongside pieces about the recently executed (San Quentin still contains California’s male death row) and longer feature pieces about successful rehabilitative programs, like G.R.I. P. (Guiding Rage into Power) and the Prison Arts Project. (Many of these programs are based on encouraging inmates to take responsibility for their actions and learn anger management skills.)

When I found out more from the CDCR about the recent shutdown of the San Quentin News, it was not because the paper had published a story about riots or abuse; in fact the “disapproved content” was something shockingly mundane.

Prison administration can justify any censorship so long as it can be classified as a threat to security and order, which can include race relations and gang affiliation. But, in real life, things are much more dicey. Because so much of what happens in prison can be justified as a “security threat,” inmates exercise particular rigor not to make waves. Prison authority works more through coerced cooperation than direct threats. So much of an inmate’s personal happiness depends on getting along with the system. A volunteer who worked with the paper told me that an article about Black History Month, for example, was eliminated at the request of prison staff. While San Quentin authorities don’t have the right to edit or revise the articles in the SQN, they do approve the content and inform the newspaper’s staff if they deem something inappropriate. Generally, this happens on a slightly informal basis. Frequently, censorship depends on the whims of an individual, and there is no appeals process for these decisions.

When I found out more from the CDCR about the recent shutdown of the San Quentin News, it was not because the paper had published a story about riots or abuse; in fact the “disapproved content” was something shockingly mundane. According to sources with knowledge of the prison, the shutdown was related to the publications of a photo taken by a prison employee. At an event open to the general public, a prison employee photographed a female volunteer casually touching an inmate, which is technically forbidden. A correctional officer had taken the photo in the course of documenting the event, and he had given the News the okay to include it in their issue. Later, a different officer retracted that permission.

***

Inmates at San Quentin do not have access to the internet, but the paper does have an online presence. A website where readers can access PDFs of the newspaper, is maintained by external volunteers. There is a Facebook page that seems to have been affiliated with the paper, the “San Quentin News,” now renamed the “San Quentin Blues,” which is operated by Lizzie Buchan, a volunteer who used to advise the paper. The Facebook page now clearly states as of the last week in January that it does not represent the views of the San Quentin News staff.

Uncensored incarcerated writers have the potential to provide a vital public service. But, inmate writers work within a difficult system—in order to write publicly at all, they must cooperate with authorities (as do volunteers for the prison—any volunteer can have their privileges revoked).

I heard from another source affiliated with the SQN that the Facebook page name change was simply to prevent confusion, but the timing seemed unusual to me. (I asked the CDCR for a comment on the Facebook page, but never received one.) Over the course of its existence, the “San Quentin News” Facebook page gained popularity and had begun to display posts of a more political nature, frequently critical of the CDCR. Yet, many of the posts were links to other sites. For example, it posted an article published in the Marin Independent Journal criticizing prison staff for confiscating children’s gifts at Christmas. The Facebook page also gives information on lockdowns and has commented on the racial segregation at San Quentin, including the fact that inmates are punished by race, something unique to California. (Because inmates are housed by race, they may be placed on lockdown or have their movement otherwise restricted based on their race and, consequently, potential gang affiliation.)

Buchan told me that she had offered multiple times to give the correctional officer who advises the San Quentin News administrator access to the Facebook page so that he could mange its content, but she received no response. Finally, the CDCR asked that the page change its name and clarify that it has no affiliation with the San Quentin News, which she recently did. Buchan still operates the site, although she no longer advises the paper.

Was the timing of these incidents a coincidence? The San Quentin News’ “time-out” was described to me variously as a “vacation” and by another as a “suspension,” one word suggesting a “break” and the other suggesting punishment. Orwellian language manipulations aside, it’s clear that the CDCR views production of the News as a privilege that can be revoked.

William Drummond, a journalism professor at Berkeley who runs a class where students assist the editors of the San Quentin News, described the fundamental problem as one of resources and influence. The CDCR has a communications department with access to a large and powerful press corps and controls media coverage of prison issues. Because journalists cannot enter prison grounds without approval, no one can circumvent the CDCR’s regulations. (Journalists have the same right to enter prison facilities as members of the public, but no more.) While the California overcrowding issue has received a lot of media attention lately, there are fewer writers covering day-to-day issues (when they can even gain access). As a result, uncensored incarcerated writers have the potential to provide a vital public service. But, inmate writers work within a difficult system—in order to write publicly at all, they must cooperate with authorities (as do volunteers for the prison—any volunteer can have their privileges revoked). At the same time, it seems right to encourage these voices from an ever-growing segment of the American population in the hopes that their words will be heard.

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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