Why Prison Journalism Matters

Prison journalism provides a window into the concealed world of mass incarceration, gives a voice to the incarcerated, and sheds light on the politics of the carceral state. Free and uncensored prison journalism is essential to criminal justice reform.

Kerry Myers, an editor of the Angolite, holds up a copy of the prison newspaper. (Giles Clarke / Getty Images)

The origins of prison journalism hearken back to the earliest days of the nineteenth century. In 1800, Forlorn Hope was the first newspaper to be published inside a prison. Since the creation of this New York prison publication, over four hundred fifty have emerged, such as the Angolite, out of the Louisiana State Penitentiary — the first prison publication to be nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Between 1930 and 1950, prison journalism reached its highest point, with over two hundred fifty prisoner-run publications. Shortly thereafter, in the 1970s and ’80s, due to punitive policies and Reagan-era penal privatization, it experienced an all-time low. In the last ten years, alongside a surge in bipartisan interest in criminal justice reform, prison journalism has reemerged and garnered the attention and support of funders, politicians, and the public.

Research and testimony from incarcerated writers confirm the social benefits of prison newspapers. Most obviously, prison journalism is a medium through which incarcerated writers are able to express themselves. Equally valuable, however, is prison journalism’s ability to provide the public with a window into an otherwise extremely opaque place and population. Academic Walter Lunden calls this exchange of experiences from the inside to the outside, “a priceless media of communication.”

The past few years have seen a resurgence in journalism from incarcerated writers. Their firsthand accounts of life in prison and analyses of criminal justice are an invaluable corrective to the pervasive lack of transparency in our penal system.

Prison Writing as Rehabilitation

In the absence of prison journalism, it is near impossible to get reliable, firsthand accounts of America’s penal system. As Lunden has noted: “The primary and basic purpose of prison journalism is to transmit ideas FOR the prisoner in two directions, inside and outside the prison wall. The entire end or objective is to bring a better understanding between the prison and the public by means of communication of ideas.” Prison journalism is an invaluable conduit between the incarcerated and the public. It is also, as journalist and prison researcher, Leah Caldwell, writes, “a practical tool for rehabilitation . . . a way for prisoners to occupy themselves on the inside, but more importantly, to gain marketable skills for use on the outside.”

Incarcerated journalists testify that writing provides valuable skill development as well as catharsis. Dorothy Maraglino, a contributing writer to the Prison Journalism Project (PJP), has found writing about her pain to be a form of recovery. “I write a lot for my own sanity and therapy. Also I write to inform and warn. The public does not realize how easy it is to end up in prison,” she says over a phone call. “We suffer in silence and accept this as our fate. Being a journalist means I get to share with the world outside about the world inside. . . . Maybe my work will be read by a future warden, or state legislator, or a voter who can make a difference.”

In 2019, Maraglino was raped in prison. When asked whether she is comfortable with this information being made public, she said, “I filed a suit against the prison when they refused to substantiate the claim and ‘lost’ evidence. I had multiple witnesses, too. So yes, tell the world so the next person won’t go through the same things.”

Maraglino does not only document traumatizing experiences. She also finds writing about daily life on the inside to be deeply valuable — writing is a vehicle through which she is able to humanize herself and others impacted by the criminal justice system. “I write about what it is like to wake up and turn to your side and see someone you don’t want to be lying next to. What is it like to, in the middle of night, reach out to feel somebody you love, and instead you feel steel,” Maraglino says, in tears, over the phone.

Rahsaan Thomas, cofounder of Empowerment Avenue, cohost of Ear Hustle, and contributing writer to the Marshall Project, came to journalism “to script the future since I cannot rewrite the past.” Thomas stresses the importance of journalism as a mechanism to expose the injustices that occur inside and to showcase the emotional intelligence of the incarcerated. Without prison journalism, prisoners are reduced to the crimes of which they are accused — and of which they are oftentimes innocent. In January of this year, Thomas was granted clemency by Governor Gavin Newsom.

Tragedy and Farce

The backlash to the activism of the 1960s came the form of social spending retrenchment. The rise of neoliberalism resulted in the defunding of prison education and programs, such as prison newspapers. In the 1970s, the Federal Bureau of Prisons restricted prisoner publications, going as far as to issue a rule that “the inmate may not act as reporter or publish under a byline.” Just as Reconstruction was followed by Jim Crow, the pendulum, pushed by the forces of fear and reaction, swung against the gains made to criminal justice policy in previous decades.

Caldwell notes that prison guards interpreted this legislation as permission to censor any writing they considered inflammatory. Several scholars, including academic H. Bruce Franklin, author of Prison Writings in 20th-Century America, argue that the crackdown on prison publications was in direct response to its success in the 1940s and ’50s. According to the Nation, in 1959, there were two hundred fifty newspapers, and by 2014, there were fewer than ten.

In the late 1970s, a set of laws, often referred to as the Son of Sam laws, prevented incarcerated writers from publishing in outside publications if they were paid. In 1977, after serial killer David Berkowitz, who was known as “Son of Sam,” sold the exclusive rights to his story, New York legislators passed a law prohibiting incarcerated people from profiting from expressive works about their crimes. The laws were “designed to take money criminals and ex-cons earn from expressive works about their crimes and give it to their victims or their victims’ family members.”

In 1991, the Supreme Court ruled that the Son of Sam laws were inconsistent with the First Amendment, stating that they were overinclusive and “reached a wide range of literature that does not enable a criminal to profit from his crime while a victim remains uncompensated.” If the laws were to have been upheld, so the successful counterargument went, other publications such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and even The Confessions of Saint Augustine would have been prevented from being published.

However, states have since passed laws similar to the Son of Sam laws. These laws also seek to prohibit incarcerated individuals from being paid for their work. The specifics of writers’ compensation differ from facility to facility. Maraglino wrote an article for PJP for which she was to be paid $100. “By the time they took out restitution, direct order, and encumbrances (prison debt for copies),” she reports, “I was left with $1.05.”

Strengths and Limits

The criminal justice system is political. The wave of conservative power that spanned from the 1970s to the 1990s affected prison programming and restricted the rights of prisoners. In the last several years, mass incarceration has received greater public attention. This has led to a wave of new prison initiatives, many of which are related to journalism. A few of the new prison journalist publications include the Marshall Project and its series, “Life Inside“; PJP; Empowerment Avenue; Ear Hustle; and PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program.

Many incarcerated writers point to the revitalization of the famous San Quentin News (SQN) publication in 2009 as a pivotal moment in the industry. The rebirth of SQN is credited with setting the tone for prison journalism and creating a roadmap for future prison publications to follow. In 1984, California’s Department of Corrections shut down SQN. “The department just didn’t want an instrument of transparency because it would draw public scrutiny,” says former editor-in-chief and current executive director of Friends of SQN, Jesse Vasquez. “The state is not obligated to publish a newspaper so they simply shut it down,” he notes. This year, SQN is eighty-two years old. It is one of the only publications in the country that is run entirely by incarcerated individuals.

The revival of SQN is a part of the broader resurgence in prison journalism programs. Just last year, JSTOR and Reveal Digital partnered to create an archive of prison newspapers: American Prison Newspapers, 1800–2020: Voices from the Inside. The archive seeks to bring “together hundreds of . . . periodicals from across the country into one collection that will represent penal institutions of all kinds, with special attention paid to women’s-only institutions.” In September 2021, the Mellon Foundation awarded $1.5 million to PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. And just last month, NPR did a special on the first twenty-four-hour radio station operated inside a prison in Colorado.

Vasquez is skeptical about the sustainability of this excitement and support, and the intentions behind it. “There are a lot of companies that pepper their publications with incarcerated writers, but they will never actually hire them, I guarantee. They are a checkbox, totally tokenized,” said Vasquez. Vasquez is optimistic about the future of incarcerated journalism, but wary of industry opportunism and profiteering.

Jessica Sylvia, an incarcerated trans woman, says she often feels like a “diversity trophy and a source of virtue signaling for academics with a savior complex.” She believes the future of prison journalism is dependent on editors who are not risk-averse, who are more willing to listen, and who will place incarcerated people in leadership positions. When Sylvia is released in May of this year, she plans to continue writing about incarcerated trans people, especially women.

Sylvia has been repeatedly disappointed by the lack of representation in the journalism industry, both inside and outside prison. Vasquez reports a similar experience. “Journalism is the fourth pillar of our democracy, so it should be one of the most culturally diverse industries,” he says. He goes on to recount the ways in which he is impeded by industry gatekeepers, citing a candid conversation with an editor who explained they couldn’t publish his article because he wasn’t a journalist, he was “just a prison writer.” Of the four incarcerated writers with whom I spoke, all had experienced editors relegating their work to the op-ed section rather than considering it reported, journalistic work.

Empower Avenue’s cofounder, Emily Nonko, thinks one of the more exciting aspects of the prison journalism resurgence is the number of freelance journalists who have emerged, pitching stories to independent outlets. However, she, too, is frustrated by the fact that “editors are constantly telling incarcerated writers that their reported stories are better suited as an op-ed.”

Vasquez attributes the categorizing of his writing as opinion to “decades of white, male control.” Vasquez contends that the same structures of hierarchy and exploitation that underpin the prison-industrial system are at play in determining what is permissible in prison journalism. Vasquez, objecting to the obstacles prison writers face, observes that, “A lot of what we write is put in editorial because people don’t like to hear the truth if it’s hard. But what part of our writing is opinion? The definition of journalism is eyewitness testimony, no one else but us can testify to what goes on in here.”

Sanitizing the Stories From the Inside

The incarcerated writers with whom I spoke all note that prison officials view prison journalism as a threat to penal systems of control. Maraglino recalls that the last warden at her prison often said, “What happens in my prison stays in here.” She took this statement to be a direct response to her writing about the poor health care in the prison.

Over jpay (an online messaging platform for incarcerated people to communicate with those outside, and vice versa), Maraglino recounts horror stories of the health care inside her prison. She tells me about a prison doctor forgetting about a patient’s allergies and prescribing a medication that left her with vision in only one eye. Another inmate patient was ignored when she complained of pain in her finger — a finger she is now losing due to a bone infection. Still another inmate received a colonoscopy that left her with bowel perforations in four places.

In a Politico article about San Quentin’s newsroom, cofounder of PJP, Shaheen Pasha, is quoted as saying: “There’s a perception that if you bring journalism in, you’ll create a rebellion inside. I keep hearing the term ‘burn it down’ —that incarcerated men and women will use their stories to burn the whole system down.” In the face of the privations forced on incarcerated populations, the articulation of real problems on the inside probably should incite rebellion, but events like the Attica uprising are few and far between. Through censorship, the prohibition of internet or email use, funding cuts, delaying mail, the confiscation of writing, and prisoner reassignment, prison administrators try to make it challenging for prison publications to function.

Sylvia says that editor’s contact information has mysteriously disappeared on the journey to her from the mail room. Blackwell also recounts having multiple pieces of mail “lost” in the mail room. They both report that in such instances there is no recourse — deliberately misplaced communications stay lost.

“I worry about retaliation, but the worst thing they can do is stick me in the hole and I’ve been there so many times it’s no longer even a deterrent. If I have to make sacrifices so the next person doesn’t, then so be it,” Blackwell says. When he finishes an article, it must be approved by prison administrators. If his work is confiscated, there is no way to prove its existence. “To get it returned, prison writers are at the mercy of the very people they may be writing about,” he explains.

As a result, incarcerated writers often self-censor. “The focus on prison life, rather than adversarial accountability journalism, is also partly due to the relationship that prison-run publications have to maintain with the administration,” writes Nonko. SQN refuses state funding so that they can maintain editorial integrity, but they are still subject to the approval of California’s Department of Corrections.

This censorship is not new. In the early twentieth century, a full hundred years after the founding of Forlorn Hope, prison newspapers had become an accepted presence across the country. Even so, prison writing was vulnerable to zealous blue-pen redactions. A 1932 edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology noted that:

Worthwhile examples of prison journalism are few and far between — not because the possibilities are non-existent but because under the seemingly inevitable unintelligent censorship imposed upon prison journalists, any noteworthy effort is nothing short of a miracle.

In the Place of Justice, written by former inmate Wilbert Rideau, traces the development of the prison system and the sophisticated infrastructure built to ensure its maintenance — an infrastructure built on oppression, suppression, and censorship. In the late 1970s, the Supreme Court ruled on multiple cases to restrict press access, deciding that “so long as restrictions are content neutral, and other lines of communication are available, there is no special right to information in prisons for the press.”

Over four thousand companies profit from mass incarceration. America’s prison system is big business and prisons benefit from the suppression of reports on how they operate. Exposing the realities of life on the inside to the public could lead to the present system’s demise. As Franklin notes, “The worse the conditions in prison, the more necessary it is to keep people from knowing how bad the conditions are. . . . [Prison administrators] will do everything in their power to make sure people are unaware of this.” The prison industry benefits from the fragmentation and opaqueness of information and news entering and exiting the prison walls. And yet, as Thomas says, “It is only authentic and intentional journalism from the inside that can break stereotypes and drive change.”

Reporting on the Prison-Industrial Complex

An incarcerated persons’ property is subject to search and confiscation at any time without justification. Incarcerated people have no right to electronic storage, so they often handwrite two copies of their work.

“We are reporting behind enemy lines and constantly writing things they don’t want us to. We are always being called liars and being questioned. [Prison administrators] never are. We always have to show proof and they don’t,” says Blackwell.

In addition to the tediousness of having to write several-thousand-word articles by hand, Blackwell explains that the costs required to connect to people outside prison are exorbitant. He reports spending between $800 and $1,200 a month on phone bills. An average incarcerated person is paid $.62 an hour, with some receiving as little as ten cents. The annual profit made by the phone companies that service prisons is $2.9 billion per year.

In the teeth of these obstacles, writers like Thomas, Blackwell, Maraglino, and Sylvia are each, in their own ways, excited by the resurgence in prison journalism. They maintain, however, that the public can do a better job of advocating for less censorship. “The future of prison journalism depends on the public and the partners who are willing to take our message to the public,” Maraglino says.

Franklin notes that the drawbacks to censoring prison journalism will accrue on the outside of prison walls: “If you deprive some people of the right to speak freely, who are the real victims? Who are the real losers? Not so much the people that don’t have the right to speak. The real losers are the people who could potentially hear what these people have to say.”

Because prison journalism is illuminating life behind bars, the realities of mass incarceration are becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. As Blackwell notes in a recent article, “The public arguably knows more today than ever before about the prison system and its conditions, largely because of voices from inside.” These voices from the inside are indispensable to the project of criminal justice reform.