The Prison Newspaper Directory finds that the number of prison-based papers is growing
The local newspaper industry has seen better days (though not so much in my lifetime). One growth spot, however, is where you might not expect it: Behind bars.
According to the newly launched Prison Newspaper Directory by the Prison Journalism Project, there are 24 prison-based newspapers in 12 states. At least four of the papers were launched in the last year.
The directory is part of PJP’s larger Prison Newspaper Project, which provides a short overview of the history of the prison press and republishes stories from prison papers so that they can reach a wider audience. The Prison Journalism Project overall provides training and resources to incarcerated journalists who want to tell stories from inside their correctional facilities.
The idea for the directory came out of San Quentin News, one of the oldest and most established prison newspapers, at the San Quentin State Prison in Northern California. Kevin Sawyer, a formerly incarcerated journalist and a contributing editor to PJP, had started doing his own research about other prison newspapers while he was the associate editor of the San Quentin News. Sawyer shared his findings with PJP, according to Kate McQueen, the project’s editor, and PJP was able to advance the research and put together a directory.
“I think a lot of people just don’t know that [prison newspapers are] out there,” McQueen said. “Just being made aware that there are people trying to do this work in a prison near where they are is a huge step forward. Knowing that they have potential partners on the inside that they could collaborate with, and not just use as a source of information, but could co-publish with? That would be an exciting thing that we’d love to see happen.”
The amount of information on each publication in the directory varies depending on the type of access to the publication that’s available. Some papers are just listed by name and correctional facility, while others have links to digitized archives, websites, and ways to subscribe or donate. Some newspapers have a strong, lengthy history of publishing while others are just getting started, McQueen said. How robust each operation is depends on what kind of support it gets from the correctional facility it’s operating out of and from local community members on the outside.
The Mule Creek Post at the Mule Creek State Prison outside of Sacramento has its own archives so readers can read the e-paper online. The San Quentin News has a website that publishes in both English and Spanish. The Inside Report, a publishing partnership between the Colorado Department of Corrections and the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, uploads PDFs of every issue to its website. The University of North Texas keeps digital archives of The Echo that’s published out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The stories each newspaper produces also vary. Many of them read like hyperlocal community newspapers (which they are) or college publications.
The most recent edition of the 16-page Mule Creek Post from January 2023 includes an update on a list of laws that went into effect on January 1, event coverage of the California Department of Corrections secretary’s visit to the facility, a creative writing section, a story on hate crimes against Asians, and a list of details and things to know ahead of being released from the facility. There are also sports, psychology, arts, and business and finance sections.
“From what we can see, the prison press is growing,” McQueen said. “There are a lot of currently incarcerated people who are interested in doing the work. I’m sure there’s more out there. We just haven’t found them yet.”
According to the Prison Newspaper Project, the state of the prison press has fluctuated since the founding of the The Prison Mirror in Minnesota in 1887 — the first newspaper produced solely by incarcerated people.
The first study on prison newspapers in 1935 found that there were at least 100 prison publications and nearly half of all U.S. correctional facilities published one. That number peaked at 250 publications in 1959 and then took a nosedive in the following decades. In 1998, James McGrath Morris’ book “Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars” only noted six active publications. Now that there are at least 24 known publications that are actively publishing and digital archives of others that have stopped publishing, McQueen said the directory can be a jumping-off point for journalists to get a better sense of what incarceration is like in their local facilities.
“It could be useful and interesting for local journalists because what a journalist inside has that an outside journalist doesn’t have is access,” McQueen said. “Prison journalists and newspapers are able to share what life is actually like inside in a way that a journalist on the outside could never do.”
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