The San Quentin News seeks to humanize inmates

It's one of the few prison publications by and for the prisoners

The first time I met Juan Haines, the 56-year-old managing editor of the San Quentin News, he gleefully showed me a very blurry photo of a young African-American man, the kind from a security camera.

“Do you recognize this man?” he asked.

The other men in the newsroom chuckled. This was clearly some sort of joke.

I looked at the picture, then at Haines, a sharp, bald guy with glasses. I shook my head.

This exchange neatly summarizes the experience of visiting the San Quentin newsroom—I couldn’t recognize these men as the guys who’d committed their crimes. Haines is serving 55-to-life for bank robbery. (He was indeed the man in the photo.) The charismatic editor in chief, Arnulfo Garcia, is serving 65-to-life for a long list of crimes, including skipping bail and robbery. The SQN writers—all inmates—seemed like writers I’d meet anywhere, which they are, in a sense, except that they aren’t just anywhere. Each one of them had a blurry photo somewhere, a phantom impression of their former selves.

The San Quentin News is one of the very few inmate-run publications in the country. Operating within the walls of San Quentin State Penitentiary in Marin County, CA, the approximately 20-page monthly newspaper is staffed entirely by inmates. The newsroom recently moved to a new building just off of the prison’s main yard, where inmates with privileges play basketball and sit outside to chat. Inside the room, a television plays the news, and inmates sit around the few computers, working to make their deadlines. They produce the paper without internet access, depending on non-inmate reporters for research. Because I am a member of the so-called “free world,” many staffers ask me about recent changes in prison policy, such as the California district court’s recent moratorium on the death penalty.

While their focus has primarily been to provide information for current inmates, SQN hopes to extend its reach beyond the 11,500 print run it currently maintains, funded solely by private donors and grants. (California stripped away funding for many prison programs in 2010.) To assist in its efforts, it has recruited the help of a team of students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, as well as a host of volunteers from the community, some of whom run the paper’s website. Volunteers from Berkeley’s School of Journalism work with the writers to perfect their skills. In February, the SQN was awarded a prize by the Society of Professional Journalists for the paper’s “invaluable public service, not just to fellow prisoners but to the general public at large.”

This is because the SQN tries to highlight positive stories like successes by current and former inmates, which sets it apart from prison beats that focus on policy and system problems, and tend to cover individual prisoners only when there is violence or strikes. According to Haines, the most popular article the paper has written was an advice piece (page 5) about how incarcerated parents can stay connected to their kids. He pulled out a copy of the article and said, as he passionately rapped the table, “This is what we do here.” Haines can be bulldoggish when he talks about something that makes him passionate. He does a wide variety of outside projects, including spearheading an environmental group within the prison as well as writing for outside publications like The Life of the Law.

“We recognize that we are inmates, felons, convicted criminals and are being punished and isolated from society under the law,” Haines said. But the positive thrust of the paper, and keeping busy “keeps us on the right track, because talking about the administration typically ends up being a negative story, while talking about what we do is positive. It’s different than mainstream media. But why not tell our positive stories in a place so dank?”

Haines also “San Quentinizes” (his term) larger media stories with relevance to the prison population—say, the insufficiency of mental healthcare in prison—and asks inmates what their experiences are. By writing articles which promote the voices and views of inmates and prison personnel, publications like the SQN have the potential to change the minds of those on the outside who may be reluctant to see long-term violent inmates as worth rehabilitation, an idea that spurred the paper’s creation.

The San Quentin News was founded in 1940 by Warden Clinton Duffy, who viewed the paper as a way to correct the widespread problem of the prison gossip grapevine, according to the paper’s website. The paper has periodically been revived throughout the decades but was completely shut down during the law-and-order period of the 1990s. It was reinstated in 2008 by retiring Warden Robert Ayers Jr., who wanted to leave with a pro-rehabilitative legacy.

Prison publications operate in an interesting area of First Amendment freedoms. While the Supreme Court has unambiguously ruled that inmates retain “the protections of the Constitution,” including free speech, the reality of exercising that right has limits. The SQN, like all inmate programs, is subject to prison-wide lockdowns and closures. Supreme Court doctrine has consistently held that prison authorities may exert their authority and suppress Constitutional rights whenever there’s a penological interest; in other words, whenever security is at stake, which is open to interpretation.

As a result, the SQN relies on the good graces of the administration to stay in business, although their relationship is really a symbiotic one. Haines spoke well of the officers who work with the paper and maintained that any delays in the process are purely due to administrative concerns, not censorship; he and Garcia were quick to point out that all journalists face constraints from publishers. This past winter, the SQN was temporarily suspended and all copies were destroyed because the paper had reprinted a photo from an arts event that the editors believed had been previously approved. The administration clearly disagreed. The CDCR commented at the time only that the paper had “circumvented the editorial process.”

This is not to say that Haines and the other writers don’t sometimes push the envelope. When Haines feels that a story is important, like any investigative report, he will keep asking questions. The SQN reported on the Pelican Bay Hunger Strikes (page 1) last year, and the most recent issue had an article (page 20) about transgender inmates, featuring two current transgender women who are serving time at San Quentin. Haines, the author of this article, is persistent in his desire to humanize a group of people who are isolated from society by virtue of being locked up.

After the article was published, Haines said that he was approached by a correctional officer who complimented him on the article. Haines described the officer as “very straightlaced,” and for a moment, Haines was confused.

“I don’t know how to feel about the story as a reporter, but I can say that it’s a feeling like I did something right about something that I know very little about,” Haines said. Even though he demurred when asked how much writing has changed him, he did add that his experience allowed him to “shape the words of a voiceless community—a stifled group of so-called misfits.”

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Jessica Pishko graduated with a JD from Harvard Law School and received an MFA from Columbia University. She write about prisons and criminal justice.