Politics & Government

Paper produced by San Quentin inmates looking to grow

From a small trailer near an exercise yard full of honking geese, the men of the San Quentin News put out a paper they hope will reach beyond the gates of the prison where many of them are serving life sentences.

“We’ve been given a chance to be the voice of the prison,” said editor-in-chief Arnulfo Garcia, taking a break one afternoon in the crowded room where 15 regular staff members write, edit and design. “No one else is doing what we’re doing.”

The paper is based at the state’s oldest prison, in what is now a medium security facility in Marin County overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It is the only one in California, and one of few worldwide, produced by inmates.

Founded in 1940 and reopened six years ago under Warden Robert Ayers, who envisioned it as more than a house organ, the paper has no guarantees. It’s been intermittently shut down, interrupted by lockdowns or suspension.

The staff, including many with recently gained literacy skills, does not have access to the Internet or unmonitored phone calls. What it does have are men with stories to tell and, as often pointed out, a captive audience.

Now it has an ambitious new goal. In December, students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business presented the staff with a 12-year business plan aimed at getting the paper to every inmate in the state, more policymakers and the public. Two months later, the Society of Professional Journalists honored the paper and its volunteers for coverage of issues ranging from a prison hunger strike and overcrowding to the denial of compassionate release for a dying inmate.

“We are, without a doubt, journalists,” said JulianGlenn Padgett, who worked on the story of the dying inmate. “We’re expected to be failures by the sheer obvious fact that we are prisoners, but this is a serious endeavor.”

The notion of growing the paper surfaced when editors approached William Drummond, a UC Berkeley journalism professor who was teaching a class at San Quentin in 2011.

“A lot of people thought it was a pipe dream,” said Drummond, who formerly wrote about prisons at the Los Angeles Times and had watched as fewer papers devoted resources to the beat. “But they seemed convinced it could be done.”

On a “wild hunch,” Drummond contacted the business school. Last August, students in a class at the school’s Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership embarked on months of consultations with the newspaper staff. They talked on the phone and held weekly meetings.

“It was very unusual,” said Nora Silver, the center’s director. “There were so many constraints, but that is also what made it so valuable. Not many consulting firms are going into prisons.”

The result was a three-phase business plan calling for raising circulation to 122,000, up from about 11,500 and increasing the annual $25,000 budget to more than half a million. There were recommendations on how to organize the news team, on marketing, strategy and branding.

Steve McNamara, an adviser who owned the Pacific Sun in Marin County for 38 years, recognizes the obstacles. The paper, which can’t sell subscriptions or ads or manage its own website, relies now on about 100 donors. It would need at least 1,000 to make the plan viable.

Distribution is another troublesome issue, said McNamara, who established a nonprofit to support the publication. The paper goes to about 17 other prisons, all with different delivery rules. Reaching all 34 prisons, many of which have declined it in the past, is tough.

“For someone in the business 60 years, you have to do a reality check, especially given the current climate in the media field,” McNamara said.

But he’s impressed with what the staff has accomplished, going from a small, poorly trained group of writers to one that puts out a paper that is, he said, “by and large excellent.”

He is now one of five advisers, including Drummond, who brings in journalism students as teachers and mentors.

The combined February and March edition, delayed by a 45-day suspension over use of an unauthorized photo, has 24 pages of stories on prison overcrowding, a new mandated facility for death row inmates with mental health issues and national incarceration rates. There are pieces on local programs, retirements and sports matches, as well as reviews and opinion pieces.

Watani Stiner, who is serving time for involvement in a 1968 shootout at UCLA that killed two and was part of a notorious escape in 1974 – contributes editorials from his vantage point as an “OG,” or member of the Old Guard, someone who’s been around long enough to give advice. The newsroom, he said, is his “sanctuary.”

“When you come in here you have to leave what’s out there,” said Juan Haines, the managing editor, who is serving 55 to life for a series of robberies. “This is a professional environment.”

Haines was working as a maintenance mechanic when Garcia, serving 65 years to life for burglary and related charges, told him about the paper. He started by joining the Journalism Guild, a training class, before moving to a staff job, which pays $56 a month.

Many on the staff are involved in other programs and still spend up to 12 hours a day in the newsroom, which is small enough to navigate on a rolling desk chair.

Then they pack up personal computers that look like bathroom scales and head to their cells for more hours of writing. In the morning, they upload it so editors can go to work. They rely on outside researchers – volunteers and at least one paroled former staffer – for Internet news, documents and reports that are brought in on approved portable flash drives.

Prison administrators review the paper and may demand changes, but mostly editors avoid “woe is me” stories and ones that might incite violence. The paper, says adviser John Eagan, a former Associated Press editor, now covers criminal justice in a way that is “head and shoulders above” what appears in outside media.

“We have some creative men in here,” said Garcia, who wants to hire another five writers. The paper receives more than 300 letters a month and is getting requests for copies from all over the country.

“It’s a Herculean effort, but it’s worth it,” said Padgett. “I think our legacy will show we came, we saw and we kicked some journalistic ass.”