Journalism locked behind state prison bars

December 11, 2014

Journalism+locked+behind+state+prison+bars

Illustration | Brittany England

San Quentin State Prison is known for having the biggest death row facility for men in the nation. But one thing it’s also known for is its news team, the San Quentin News.

The newspaper recently won an award in March from the Society of Professional Journalists for “accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances.” They were promptly shut down by prison staff the same year for 45 days for publishing a non-approved photo, according to the LA Times.

It has all the hallmarks of a regular newsroom. Some men are hard at work at the computers while others are goofing around. A “Think Different” poster hangs from the wall, with Steve Jobs, John Lennon and Albert Einstein’s black and white visages watching over their news table. They have journalistic dilemmas that give dramas like “The Newsroom” on HBO a run for its money.

Last week they caught wind of a story about an inmate who found out the person who murdered his uncle was also in same prison. Typically, when these situations occur they always escalate to violence because the victim wants answers for their family member’s death. And publishing this information and the names of the inmates could put the safety of both parties in jeopardy, so they held off on publishing the piece.

However this situation ended on a more positive note. Both the victim and the offender met up with one of the prison chaplains to talk about what happened, and they settled their differences and made peace with each other. So it’s a feel good story, but the news team wanted to make sure they felt comfortable publishing that kind of story, said Editor-in-Chief Arnulfo Garcia.

Garcia leads the news team, which consists of about 15 people. He is serving a sentence of 65 years to life for multiple burglaries. Thus far he has served just over 13 years of his sentence.

While in prison he has been working on a book of his experiences, currently he says he is sitting at 16,000 pages. He said writing it has been therapeutic for him.

“It was the first time I cried, and the first time I could express feelings,” said Garcia.

The staff boasted they get paid about 32 cents an hour, which amounts to $56 a month. They can use the money to buy anything from ice cream to hardware bits. A tube of toothpaste in San Quentin runs about $3.

Malik Harris shared a story of a cellmate in Level 4 who had been in and out of jail 18 times since he was 19. After getting to know the younger man better, the guy told him something that stuck with Harris.

“He said ‘Prison is easy…I’ve got prison figured out. But it’s the streets man got me all tied up’,” said Harris.

Harris said the biggest problem in prison is that the worst offenders are put in the hole, the term for solitary confinement, when really they have mental health issues and need help. Being isolated only makes problems worse. Many prisoners do not get the help they actually need.

Regarding the story of the man who made peace with the inmate who killed his uncle, he said oftentimes the victims just want to know what they or their family did wrong that made them deserve death. And for the killer, it is often not personal and there is no reason. Harris believes that if prisons would encourage more victim-offender dialog, prisoners can be given a chance to heal and move on with their lives.

“I believe if we can fix that one part of the system, things will change,” said Harris.

Several of the men with life sentences remain optimistic that they’ll eventually walk free after their appeal to the parole board is granted.

The San Quentin News was first created in 1940, but was shut down by the prison staff, according to one of the advisers Joan Lisetor. It was revived in 2008 by warden Robert Ayers Jr and has been operating under its current model ever since. It is one of the few prison newspapers in the nation.

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