On a trip to San Francisco in September 1930, a man visiting from Calgary, Canada was riding a San Francisco Bay ferry. He happened upon a copy of a four page newspaper called the Wall City News. Dated September 10, 1930, the paper had articles talking about the winners of a recent track and field meet. The winner of the 100 yard dash was just seven-tenths of a second shy of the world record that had been set just three months earlier. The most astonishing fact in the newspaper, however, was on its masthead.
The Wall City News was the only newspaper published within the walls of a prison.
The copy found from the man from Calgary is the oldest known issue of the newspaper that has survived more than 80 years to become what is now known as The San Quentin News. Started in the 1920s, the paper is written and produced by the prisoners serving time at San Quentin State Prison in California, the state’s oldest prison which also houses its death row inmates. It is the first known prisoner produced newspaper and remains one of few such publications in the country.
Today The San Quentin News publishes 20 pages monthly and is distributed to 11,500 inmates, correctional officers and staff at 16 of California’s 34 prisons via the prisons’ libraries. More than 20 inmates, many serving life sentences, write the articles under the leadership of five inmates who serve as editors. They have a local advisory team made up of four volunteers of journalists and editors with extensive experience with major newspapers across the country. The articles still focus on prison sporting events and officers’ retirements, but also weightier issues including prison conditions and the ongoing efforts in California’s court-ordered prison population realignment.
Now their coverage is receiving a journalism award.
Next month the paper will be honored with a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The organization, which is “dedicated to the perpetuation of a free press as the cornerstone of our nation and our liberty,” began in 1909 as a journalistic fraternity known as Sigma Delta Chi. Since 1988, SPJ has been dedicated to promoting the flow of information and encouraging an environment in which journalism can be practiced freely. The James Madison Freedom of Information Award honors journalists, individuals and organizations who have promoted the public’s right to know.
It is in this spirit it is awarding The San Quentin News with its News Media Award “for accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances.”
Every issue of the paper is reviewed by prison administrators before printing. Inmates lack true journalistic freedom as prison officials have veto power over content. A book review on a memoir about growing up black in America was pulled out of fear that it would inflame racial tensions within the prison. More recently, a dispute over a photo led to all copies of an issue being destroyed and reprinted. After the December 2013 issue had been reviewed by prison officials, the inmate editors switched out a photo with another. The new photo was not a security risk or otherwise inappropriate. Nevertheless, all the issues were destroyed and reprinted. Using the non-vetted photo led to a 45 day suspension of operations.
The suspension is scheduled to end on February 15.
Yet, through all of this, the paper has carried articles critical of prison budget cuts, hunger strikes and the denial of a passionate release for an 81-year-old inmate dying of cancer. The computers they use do not have Internet access and the outside articles they use for research are brought into the prison on flash drives by the advisors. The paper’s website is hosted on an outside server that is maintained by one of the volunteer advisors.
Needless to say, reporting isn’t easy under these conditions.
As the only inmate-produced newspaper in the state, the Society of Professional Journalists is honoring the paper’s extraordinary efforts to handle reporting with “tenacity, sensitivity, and thoroughness,” while still under the strict scrutiny of prison authorities. They are honoring the prison reporters for what they describe as raising “the curtain of secrecy that shrouds those who live behind the walls.”
As for the future of the paper, the editors and advisors hope to expand circulation to include all of California’s 34 state prisons and to continue to be the pulse of San Quentin.