Inmates’ Newspaper Covers a World Behind San Quentin’s Walls

Max Whittaker for The New York Times
Max Whittaker for The New York Times

It is not every newspaper editor who can point to a black-and-white surveillance photograph from a 1996 bank robbery and say that he was the robber.

But then again, The San Quentin News — which was recently honored by a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances” — is hardly a typical newspaper.

Founded in 1940 and then revived as a serious journalistic enterprise six years ago, the monthly News, which bills itself as “The Pulse of San Quentin,” is the state’s only inmate-produced newspaper and one of the few in the world. The paper’s 15 staff members, all of them male felons, write from the unusual perspective of having served an estimated 297 ½ years collectively for burglary, murder, home invasion, conspiracy and, in one case, a Ponzi scheme.

In a notorious prison best known for its death row, the men are committed to what Juan Haines, the 56-year-old managing editor, who is serving 55 years to life for that 1996 bank robbery, calls “boots on the ground” journalism, accomplished without cellphones or direct Internet access. “It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” he said.

From their newsroom trailer next to the prison yard, where inmates work out amid spectacular views, the reporters and editors delve into issues at “the Q,” as San Quentin State Prison is sometimes called, as well as those far beyond its walls. They have covered a hunger strike, crowding in California’s women’s prisons and a federal court order concerning mental health care for California death row inmates.

But the paper specializes in stories that can be written only by journalists with a “uniquely visceral understanding of the criminal justice system,” said Arnulfo T. Garcia, the paper’s editor in chief, who is serving 65 years to life for a long list of crimes that includes burglary, robbery and skipping bail to flee to Mexico.

Lately, the paper seems to be gathering momentum. Editors, who sometimes work through dinner over ramen noodles, are talking about expanding the current circulation of 11,500. Students from the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, have helped them develop a 12-year business plan that would increase the number of paid subscribers to help subsidize the free copies for inmates.

This year, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave The San Quentin News one of its James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.

Some people find the possibility of a higher profile alarming. Marc Klaas, president of the KlaasKids Foundation, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped at knife point from a sleepover and murdered in 1993, said that he was “vehemently opposed” to an inmate-produced publication being accessible to the public.

“These men are behind bars for a reason — so we can be protected from them,” Mr. Klaas said. “I don’t think that criminals serving time should have the opportunity to influence the hearts and minds of law-abiding citizens.” Richard Allen Davis, convicted in 1996 in the murder of Polly Klaas, is on death row at San Quentin.

Robert L. Ayers Jr., a former San Quentin warden who retired in 2008, said that positive outlets were important for prisoners. He said he decided to revive the publication as a quality journalistic endeavor rather than what he called an “inmate rant rag.”

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Source: The New York Times | 

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