And leave it to the criminal-loving liberals at the New York Times to praise the killers among us...
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — It is not every newspaper editor who can point to a black-and-white surveillance photograph from a 1996 bank robbery and say that he was the robber.
But then again, The San Quentin News — which was recently honored by a chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for “accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances” — is hardly a typical newspaper.
Founded in 1940 and then revived as a serious journalistic enterprise six years ago, the monthly News, which bills itself as “The Pulse of San Quentin,” is the state’s only inmate-produced newspaper and one of the few in the world. The paper’s 15 staff members, all of them male felons, write from the unusual perspective of having served an estimated 297 ½ years collectively for burglary, murder, home invasion, conspiracy and, in one case, a Ponzi scheme.
In a notorious prison best known for its death row, the men are committed to what Juan Haines, the 56-year-old managing editor, who is serving 55 years to life for that 1996 bank robbery, calls “boots on the ground” journalism, accomplished without cellphones or direct Internet access. “It’s about being heard in a place that’s literally shut off from the world,” he said.
From their newsroom trailer next to the prison yard, where inmates work out amid spectacular views, the reporters and editors delve into issues at “the Q,” as San Quentin State Prison is sometimes called, as well as those far beyond its walls. They have covered a hunger strike, crowding in California’s women’s prisons and a federal court order concerning mental health care for California death row inmates.
But the paper specializes in stories that can be written only by journalists with a “uniquely visceral understanding of the criminal justice system,” said Arnulfo T. Garcia, the paper’s editor in chief, who is serving 65 years to life for a long list of crimes that includes burglary, robbery and skipping bail to flee to Mexico.
Lately, the paper seems to be gathering momentum. Editors, who sometimes work through dinner over ramen noodles, are talking about expanding the current circulation of 11,500. Students from the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at the University of California, Berkeley, have helped them develop a 12-year business plan that would increase the number of paid subscribers to help subsidize the free copies for inmates.
This year, the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists gave The San Quentin News one of its James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.
Some people find the possibility of a higher profile alarming. Marc Klaas, president of the KlaasKids Foundation, whose 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped at knife point from a sleepover and murdered in 1993, said that he was “vehemently opposed” to an inmate-produced publication being accessible to the public.
“These men are behind bars for a reason — so we can be protected from them,” Mr. Klaas said. “I don’t think that criminals serving time should have the opportunity to influence the hearts and minds of law-abiding citizens.” Richard Allen Davis, convicted in 1996 in the murder of Polly Klaas, is on death row at San Quentin.
Robert L. Ayers Jr., a former San Quentin warden who retired in 2008, said that positive outlets were important for prisoners. He said he decided to revive the publication as a quality journalistic endeavor rather than what he called an “inmate rant rag.”
“When they get involved and see they’re accomplishing something, that could be the one positive tick mark in the ‘good’ column for them,” he said. In learning how to write, he added, “they start expressing themselves in ways other than physical or violent means.”
The paper’s recent coverage has included an article about an inmate who was denied a compassionate release (“Judge Slams the Door on Cancer Patient, 81”) and a profile of transgender inmates that highlighted the lack of availability of bras at men’s prisons.
One inmate on the staff, Glenn Padgett, 50, said that his work felt redemptive. “I’m just trying to give back, to deal with the rips and tears I’ve made in the universe,” said Mr. Padgett, known as Luke, who, at age 33, stabbed a man to death and set fire to his home to cover up the killing.
Prison officials vet all the content. This year, the news operation was suspended for 45 days after a photograph of a Shakespearean play performance was swapped without approval. This prompted Watani Stiner, a columnist, to write, “We are once again reminded that we are prisoners first and journalists second.” (Mr. Stiner, 66, escaped in 1974 from San Quentin, where he was serving a life sentence for conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting deaths of two Black Panthers, and fled the country. Asked by a visitor how he escaped, he replied, “Real fast.”)
Like a small-town paper — San Quentin has a population of 3,855 — The News covers sports (including the San Quentin Giants and the A’s), arts and entertainment, new babies born to the paper’s advisers, folksy holiday greetings and man-on-the-street interviews, San Quentin-style. “We can go right into the yard and get a quote about how inmates are affected by policy decisions,” Mr. Haines, the managing editor, said. Its issues are typically 20 pages and are available online. A yearly subscription costs $40 for members of the public.
The paper is distributed to 17 prisons in addition to San Quentin, where it is considered a must-read by correctional officers. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation does not pay for printing or distribution; the paper survives on grants, donations and subscriptions. A team of outside volunteer advisers — including students from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, led by William Drummond, a former Los Angeles Times reporter — provides editorial and research assistance. So does Richard Lindsey, a former staff member who was paroled last year and now combs through studies from the Vera Institute of Justice, the Pew Research Center and other sources on the web. He delivers his research on a flash drive to the prison’s public information officer, who passes it on to the paper’s staff.
“The leading public health problem in prison is boredom,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor and criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley. The newspaper, he said, “is an operational antidepressant that keeps its participants structured and psychologically well organized.”
Inmates are often drawn to stories that prompt self-reflection. In an interview, one correctional officer described a call he had received from a friend who said, “Your baby’s dead.” That was how the officer had learned that his 19-year-old son had been murdered in a case of mistaken identity.
I will still - no matter where I am - race to Petaluma and drink a toast with the natives when that sub-human son-of-a-bitch dies and goes to hell!