Prisoners run a newspaper from inside a California jail. The monthly raises awareness of social justice issues and offers a new chance to convicts.
Jonathan Chiu (Photo by Christie Goshe)
Jonathan Chiu was sentenced to 50 years in prison for first-degree murder in 2004.
In May, the governor of the U.S. state of California commuted Chiu’s sentence, and Chiu was released on parole, 34 years early.
“I wouldn’t be back out if it wasn’t for the paper,” Chiu said, referring to the San Quentin News, a monthly newspaper run by inmates in the state’s oldest prison. “I genuinely believe that.”
While behind bars, Chiu was the layout editor of the only prisoner-run newspaper in the United States, which employs 12-15 incarcerated men who are helped by seven professional advisers and a handful of volunteers.
A printed edition is distributed to the approximately 4,000 inmates at San Quentin, which is north of San Francisco, as well as to prison staff, volunteers and visitors. Another 18,000 copies are sent to California’s 35 other prisons and to local communities. The total press run is about 30,000 copies.
“San Quentin News reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice,” according to the newspaper’s website, where the latest edition features articles on deaths in U.S. prisons due to COVID-19, a prison reform law in California and a measure granting the right to vote to former prisoners.
“The paper wants to prove that rehabilitation is there, and that given the opportunity, people can change,” Chiu said in an interview.
Prison is rich with stories.
Each issue covers a range of topics, from the death penalty to criminal justice law and policy to art and sports. It even has a crossword puzzle, which Chiu coordinates.
“I started making the crosswords inside, using an old fashioned pen and paper, a dictionary and any information that I could retain in my mind,” Chiu said, adding: “We don’t have access to the internet or Google inside.”
To help prisoners improve editing skills, the newspaper offers a class called the Journalism Guild, taught by a volunteer instructor like Yukari Iwatani Kane, a journalist, author and journalism school professor who ran the class from 2016 to 2018.
When Kane first entered the prison, she knew nothing about prison life, criminal justice or mass incarceration. What struck her most was the talent, ambition and interest inside the walls — and her realization that it was being wasted.
“As a journalist, I’m always seeing stories,” said Kane, who currently is an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and still helps the paper as an advisor. Prison, she said, is rich with stories.
Hearing the stories, Kane became increasingly interested in learning more about criminal justice reform. “It blew open a whole world that I didn’t see before,” she said.
Kane said she was shocked to learn how extensive incarceration is in the United States. It affects the estimated 2.3 million people who are imprisoned or detained, but also the 115 million people who know them. What is more, information about prison life comes largely from “the outside,” she said.
Prisoners know what’s going on inside.
In 2020, Kane co-founded the Prison Journalism Project, which helps prisoners and those in communities hard hit by incarceration to “tell stories about their world using the tools of journalism.”
Journalists outside prisons reporting on what goes on behind bars can be limited to what the public information office shares with them. Inmates really know what is going on.
Inmates don’t need permission to interview another prisoner. Typically, they have the trust of other inmates, which allows them to tell a story with the kind of nuance that can escape an outside reporter. And an outside journalist may not know when to challenge a response that warrants skepticism.
“This doesn’t mean that outside reporting isn’t important,” Kane said. “It just means that there’s a perspective missing that we think we can fill, and we want to help our writers fill it.”
The Prison Journalism Project trains inmates to write stories — from straight reporting to opinion pieces — of publishable quality, about their communities or simply issues they care about.
“The only way to change things is by getting stories — getting good journalism — about what is really happening on the inside,” said Kane.
Those working on the newspaper don’t return to crime.
The stories that emerge from the Prison Journalism Project don’t just serve a purpose beyond prison walls. They also play an important role inside.
Prisons deliberately cut inmates off from the outside world, including other prisons. The Project partners with publications on the inside to ensure the stories reach inmates. One of those “inside” organizations is The San Quentin News, which Kane now advises.
The recidivism rate among San Quentin News alumni is zero, according to Kane. Once staff reporters at the News get released from prison, they do not go back. Why? Because the newspaper empowers prison writers, teaches them important skills and provides them with a sense of community within San Quentin.
Although most alums don’t continue to practice journalism, their work for the News gives them skills needed to be successful in the outside world. “When you’re a reporter, you are in situations where you get to interface with the outside world,” explained Kane. “Oftentimes, this means you end up with more support once you get out.”
By talking to people, a reporter develops empathy, observation and communication and socialization skills.
“And writing,” Kane added. “If you can write well, it doesn’t matter what job you take. It’s always going to help you.”
The newspaper gives a second chance to convicts.
Chiu credits his time on the paper with helping him gain confidence. Specifically, he thanks San Quentin’s visitors. When they came through the newsroom on tours of San Quentin, the staff was tasked with talking to them about the paper and answering questions.
“It allowed me to learn how to open up and talk about who I am,” said Chiu.
The San Quentin newsroom, according to Chiu, is “organized and disorganized” like any other and includes people of different races, cultures, religions and backgrounds. “At the end of the day, we all have the same belief in each other and in the mission of the paper,” he said.
Returning to the outside world, which the prison system tried hard to cut off, was difficult, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Chiu said. Continuing to work at the newspaper, which is being run with the help of alumni during the pandemic, and contributing to the Prison Journalism Project has helped, he said.
“I felt like I needed to give back and make amends,” said Chiu. “And the paper is a way to help all of those people who are still incarcerated.”
Three questions to consider:
- How many prisoners are there in the United States?
- Why are journalists from outside prisons at a disadvantage reporting on what goes on in jails?
- Why do you think being a reporter for the San Quentin News can help a prisoner return to a crime-free life outside of jail?
Elena Townsend-Lerdo is in her third year at The Thacher School in the United States. She writes for the school newspaper and performs with the string and vocal ensembles. In 2015, she started Elena Blogs for a Change, where she writes about social issues and features award-winning authors and changemakers.