Some, like those that Rodriguez spoke to in San Quentin, are also taking their stories directly to people in power, via forums that bring incarcerated men into conversation with district attorneys, policy makers and politicians. And perhaps most importantly, the work continues after prison: Incarcerated writers are also going on to work on repealing the laws that undergird mass incarceration after they are released, again using those same skills to shape a narrative about punishment that, until recently, most people weren’t open to hearing.
Narratives are hugely important to how the public and leaders understand people caught up in the justice system, starting the moment they hit court, often with a compelling tale of complicity told by a prosecutor. But with internet connections prohibited inside prison, as well as a lack of resources to produce media for outside audiences, incarcerated people have been largely excluded from having a hand in telling their own stories. But that has begun changing, in part because of innovative programs at some prisons. The storytelling of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated journalists has been key to public opinion shifts on prison reform in recent years, as the public and some policymakers have come around to the idea that the harshness of U.S. prisons might be inhumane, even counterproductive. Part of that change has been driven by the San Quentin newsroom—a place that continues to shape how Americans see prisoners, and how Americans see prison.
Newspapers were a common fixture of U.S. prisons since 1887, when The Prison Mirror was founded at Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison. By the middle of the century, most states had at least one prison-operated newspaper. Even early prison media attracted an outside audience: The Mirror drew advertisers from outside the prison, attracted thousands of subscribers, and billed itself as “the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform.” The Angolite, perhaps the most well-known prison paper, was founded in 1953 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It was the first prison publication to be nominated for a National Magazine Award, for which it has been a finalist seven times. San Quentin’s first newspaper was Wall City News, which published regularly in the 1920s and 1930s. The San Quentin News was founded in 1940.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as politicians ran on platforms of cracking down on crime, prison populations swelled and budgets for educational programs for incarcerated people were slashed. Prison newsrooms across the country died in the following decades, from a high of 250 in 1959 to fewer than a dozen by 2014, according to a report by the Nation.
It wasn’t specifically a lack of money that shut down the San Quentin News. In the 1970s and 1980s, clashes repeatedly broke out between the journalists and prison administrators. In 1980, the warden fired everyone on the newspaper involved with an article featuring photography of bird droppings in the prison mess hall. The conflict ended up in court, with the judge ultimately siding with San Quentin’s journalists. In 1984, another court case—this one out of Soledad State Prison, in Southern California—once again affirmed the protection of free speech for prison newspapers. San Quentin officials, rather than complying, shut the paper down altogether.