When Nancy Mullane said she thought the Society of Professional Journalists might accept a group of incarcerated men as members of a satellite chapter, I thought, “This woman is crazy.” No way would “Professional Journalists” accept men banned from society as colleagues. But it turns out, they have. Now, 38 incarcerated SPJ members attend weekly meetings held inside a media center building surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers.
This project, to build an SPJ group inside San Quentin, took over a year to happen. We met once a month to discuss our plans, but more than that, Mullane brought fellow colleagues inside the prison. We had to win over the heads of the SPJ national office and the SPJ Northern California chapter board — and we did.
I still remember the day Lila LaHood, president of the Northern California chapter, came in and made the official announcement. It was June 17, 2015, that she personally welcomed us as members of the San Quentin satellite chapter of the NorCal SPJ. We celebrated with smiles and handshakes and posed for photographs, our first as SPJ members. I felt proud to receive the blue SPJ membership card with my name printed on its face.
Now we have colleagues visit as guests on a regular basis — awesome people like Michael Bott, producer for NBC Bay Area’s “We Investigate” program; Quentin Hardy, formerly a reporter with The New York Times and now working for Google News; Julia Love, a reporter with Reuters, as well as Mullane, mentoring us.
These face-to-face meetings, professional development opportunities and networking workshops mean more than anonymous people paying their dues. We became recognized as people who have value as journalists.
Our work has been award-winning. The San Quentin News, for which I write, won NorCal Chapter’s James Madison Freedom of Information Award. The San Quentin Prison Report, our radio counterparts, won the SPJ Excellence in Community Journalism Award.
Also, two of our members have won individual awards. Louis Scott won the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club first-place award for a story that aired on KALW 91.7 FM called “Lady Jay Talks About Being Transgender.” Kevin D. Sawyer, associate editor for San Quentin News, won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism.
CNN featured San Quentin News in an episode of “United Shades of America with W. Kamau Bell.”
Another amazing accomplishment that SPJ San Quentin sparked was the union of two rival media organizations inside a prison. San Quentin News and San Quentin Prison Report operated as competitors until SPJ brought us together as colleagues. Since our memberships, we co-produced a show together with “Life of the Law” about the transformation of people, called “Live Law.”
In forming a bond with fellow journalists, I have learned how much more we can accomplish working together, and I think we should. Because as journalists, we all share the same goals.
Rahsaan Thomas is Vice Chair of the San Quentin SPJ chapter
CONTINUED: IN PRISON AND IN SPJ
If you thought being a journalist comes with its own set of unique challenges, imagine what it’s like being a journalist who is incarcerated. I’m sure that most of the professionals in this field don’t even realize we exist. But what’s important about us is not that we exist, but what we have to offer.
We are the boots on the ground that can expand and enlighten the conversation around this nation’s broken prison system. Providing fair and balanced reports on prison can be a challenge due to the difficulty that comes with obtaining access. We, the incarcerated, are the solution.
With this in mind, we set out to establish an SPJ chapter in one of the nation’s oldest prisons so that journalism could be nurtured and enriched – and discovered by those who have something meaningful to say but who don’t have the platform that would allow them to be heard. Easier said than done.
In order for us to create this platform, we had to resolve a number of issues, including the election of an executive body. In prison, a few speaking for the interest of the many is a pretty big deal. Yet we came together, worked it out, and now here we are. Our platform doesn’t just exist, it is significant.
With a prisoner-run newspaper, podcast and film/documentary program, we can offer content that expands the conversation around our prison system. And what’s missing from this conversation are reports that show prisoners as the complex and nuanced human beings that we are.
2017 has so far been a very exciting year for our chapter. Thanks in large part to the brilliance and unwavering advocacy of Nancy Mullane, we’ve been able to launch the “San Quentin SPJ 4 Corners Project” – a professional enrichment venture that has professionals from the four corners of the media spectrum (print, video, audio and online) coming into the prison and providing weekly workshops in relation to their fields.
On March 3, our chapter held a panel discussion with four of the nation’s leading prison scholars. They met inside San Quentin with prisoners and had a frank and honest discussion on protest, solitary confinement and the psychological effects of long-term incarceration. On March 5, national SPJ President Lynn Walsh visited. What stood out about this visit (aside from the fact that the president spent time with us) was that the national leader of SPJ recognizes our value. Walsh understands that when it comes to expanding the conversation that is currently being had about our prison system, we – as journalists – have something to offer.
And it’s only going to get better.
Shadeed Wallace-Stepter is Chair of the San Quentin SPJ chapter