San Quentin's Inmate-Run Media Enterprise Earns Praise

by | March 13, 2015

By Robert Salonga

Over the past two years, listeners of Bay Area public radio have been able to get an unvarnished look into life at the state's most famous prison: an inmate living with HIV. A foreigner whose introduction to America came within prison walls. The nuance of a jail-yard handshake.

The depth of the material suggests the reporter had to be embedded in the prison to get such detail, emotion and candor. In the case of the San Quentin Prison Report, "embedded" means "incarcerated."

The radio program and a partner newspaper, the San Quentin News, represent a burgeoning media enterprise produced by inmates in the home of California's death row. The idea of murderers and violent criminals being given the chance to produce news stories about prison life raises the hackles of victims' rights advocates and others. But the staffers and their supporters see the enterprise as a vehicle for the inmates to gain some measure of redemption and even rehabilitation.

Both the radio report and newspaper garnered recognition last year from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. The newspaper earned a New York Times feature, and the radio segments are broadcast on local NPR affiliate KALW.

They even made their way into a sizable portion of the January inauguration speech of Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, who recounted his experiences meeting with the newspaper staff and editor-in-chief Arnulfo Garcia, who is serving a life sentence for burglary and bail jumping.

"Here's a multiethnic group working together to say things like, 'This is what it's like for us inside, these are the ways we think society could be better and less people could wind up in prison,'" Rosen said. "It helps to broaden my perspective about what we're doing in the criminal justice system and what works and what doesn't necessarily work. It reinforces their humanity. The fact they're willing to do this, even if they're not getting out, is something we should support."

That spirit permeates the work done in the horseshoe of computers that make up the San Quentin News operation, where inmates such as Rich Richardson and Phoeun You lay out the 20-page tabloid sheet using Adobe InDesign.

"There are changes that happen in their lives. We present that for the world to show that change is possible," said You, who is 20 years into a life sentence for murder.

Everything put out by the newspaper and radio station is carefully vetted by communications staff at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Beyond that, the San Quentin News _ which has its roots in the Wall City News, a prison publication founded nearly a century ago _ fills inmates' thirst for information in an environment predicated on isolation.

"We once got a letter that said, 'I had to trade my food, my dessert to get a chance to read it,'" You said.

With no Internet access, the radio and newspaper staffs rely on research-loaded flash drives from a vast battery of outside volunteers who include journalism students and faculty from the University of California, Berkeley, retired reporters, and current and former staff of the Pacific Sun, where the newspaper has been printed since San Quentin's in-house print shop was shuttered by budget cuts in 2010. They are kept afloat largely by grants, and Berkeley's Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership has helped them form a long-term plan to increase paid outside subscribers. Berkeley students and faculty are also working to revamp the website.

None of the staff members minimizes his past. Most are in San Quentin for murder. But they also see their work as proof not only of personal evolution during imprisonment, but also of the rehabilitative power of keeping minds engaged.

"Many of us have been in Level 4 prisons, where you're mostly in lockdown," said Louis A. Scott, an inmate reporter who is serving a life sentence for pimping and pandering offenses. "I mean, I'm 200 years to life, I parole in 2167. Being able to give insight, being able to participate in this program is fantastic."

(c)2015 San Jose Mercury News