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The history of prison-run newspapers and why they're on the rise

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Since the 1800s, people inside of U.S. prisons have printed their own newspapers and run their own newsrooms. These efforts are collectively known as the prison press.

KEVIN SAWYER: The newspaper gives the incarcerated a voice.

SUMMERS: That's Kevin Sawyer, who spoke to us from inside San Quentin State Prison. He is the former associate editor of that prison's newspaper, the San Quentin News.

SAWYER: When I came to prison, I started writing stories, poems and journals. None of that stuff was published. So when I arrived at San Quentin, I discovered there was a newspaper here, and that's how I got involved.

SUMMERS: And despite the huge decline of newspapers nationwide in recent decades, the number of publications run by incarcerated people is actually on the rise. That's according to a new study by the Prison Journalism Project. Kate McQueen is a managing editor there who helps to publish the work of incarcerated journalists. Hey, Kate.

KATE MCQUEEN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: Also joining us is Ryan Moser, a writer formerly incarcerated in Florida. Ryan's stories have appeared in The Marshall Project and other outlets. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN MOSER: Hi, Juana - appreciate you having me on today.

SUMMERS: All right. And, Ryan, I want to start with you here. As someone who has worked as a journalist both in and out of prison, can you just give us a sense of how a prison press newspaper is run and operated?

MOSER: Well, we had a good team where I was at. We had about 10 staff writers and two editors and one graphic and layout designer. And we had weekly meetings where we would give assignments ranging from community events to journalistic news to simple updates on things that were happening at the institution. We had an excellent newspaper called the Everglades Endeavor, which is still going today after five years.

SUMMERS: Wow. I mean, a lot of that sounds like my first job working at a local newspaper. But Ryan, I'm curious - are there any specific logistical challenges in, say, getting in touch with sources or actually getting things printed that may look different than what most people are used to?

MOSER: Yes, Juana, I think some of the little things you wouldn't think of. For example, if you have an interview scheduled with somebody and then let's say we are in a lockdown, obviously, you have to reschedule that interview. Or maybe you were given permission to write a story and you start to do the research and interviews, but then the administration were to step in during the early parts of editing and say, hold on a second, that's maybe too controversial or something that we're not willing to print, and that was something we ran up against continually.

SUMMERS: Kate, I think some people might be surprised to hear that there's an incredibly rich history of newspapers being published in prisons. I'm hoping you can briefly tell us a little bit of that history of how this movement began.

MCQUEEN: Prison newspapers have been around since the early 1800s. The first true prisoner-run newspaper came out of Minnesota Correctional Facility in Stillwater, Minn. It was called the Prison Mirror, and that was in 1887. So ever since then, newspapers have flourished, sometimes with outside support, sometimes without it. Ryan can speak to this a little bit better than me, but I think even at the Endeavor, they have a regular set of instructors that come in to help support the work of the paper. So I think that we're in a moment right now where outside organizations are just really excited to see this work and are giving them the kind of support they need to be successful.

SUMMERS: Ryan, tell us a little bit about that. How did you get your start in journalism while you were incarcerated?

MOSER: Well, I began writing essays, and some of those essays got published. And the Prison Journalism Project was one of the outlets, and they gave me the honor of being in the first cohort of their journalism school. And that began a 10-month course, a correspondence course, where we would learn about interviewing tactics and fact-checking and attribution and research and things of that nature. What drew me to journalism was having the ability to be a part of a change, be a change agent. So many people have a misconception about men and women inside prison, and some of the articles that I had wrote I feel like maybe had some impact on showing the humanity behind bars.

SUMMERS: Is there a particular story or something that you wrote while you were incarcerated that you found particularly impactful, that you felt like made a difference, as you were just talking about?

MOSER: One of the articles that I wrote with the Prison Journalism Project is about the earthquake in Haiti two years ago, and I interviewed the Haitian community inside the Everglades prison that I was at. And it really - it was profound to hear from these men how hard it was having their family members so far away and suffering and the devastation of the earthquake, and a lot of them said that just being able to talk about it and let other people hear what was going on made them feel a little better. It was cathartic for them. And there was a good response to the article, and that was in the early stages of my journalistic career, and I was really proud of that. And Prison Journalism Project was a key factor in making that happen.

SUMMERS: Kate, the Prison Journalism Project helps to train people who are incarcerated to do journalism, but the project also works with them to publish in outside publications as well. Can you tell us a bit more about how that works?

MCQUEEN: There's a couple of different ways that we approach it. Sometimes, we will get a story from a writer and we think it deserves a larger audience than even we can bring. And then we'll look for a partner in a local media outlet to co-publish or work with us on the story as it's being developed. Sometimes publications come to us and say, hey; we would like to cover a certain issue, and we would love to get the perspective of a person who's inside in order to, you know, more fully represent this issue for our audience.

SUMMERS: I'll ask this question to both of you. How do you each explain the staying power of the prison press after all of these years, all of that history?

MCQUEEN: People need information to live successful lives, and that's true no matter where you live. So, you know, misinformation, disinformation are problems inside prison as well as outside prison. I think for prison newspapers, their first audience is their - the people in the facility with them, but prison newspapers also want to reach out to an outside audience. They want to, you know, poke holes in the wall, so to speak, and having a publication is a great way to do that.

MOSER: I would think one of the keys to the longevity is the readers and the writers. The readers, we crave information, and on the other side of that, the writers, the journalists that are doing the work, are, I believe, finding the same purpose that I felt in engaging with our community and letting people outside know this is what's going on, and if you care about humanity, there are things that you can do, such as voting for different policies and legislation and volunteering to come into prisons, things that you can do to stop this cycle that we've been going through for so many years. And I think the prison newspapers are one of the only outlets that people have to read about what's going on inside.

SUMMERS: We've been talking with journalist Ryan Moser and Kate McQueen with the Prison Journalism Project. Thanks to both of you.

MCQUEEN: Thank you so much.

MOSER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.