It’s a Saturday in mid-September and Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods have just released Episode 1 of Season 3 of their hit podcast, Ear Hustle. The deadline for Episode 2 is in about 10 days, episode 3 two weeks after that, then four through eight, every two weeks through the end of the year. That wasn’t the plan.
Poor and Woods had intended to work through the summer to try to get ahead. “We were just going to put our heads down and try to have four episodes done before the season launched,” Poor said. Instead, San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay, home of Ear Hustle and about a half-dozen other behind-the-walls news organizations, went into a three-week lockdown. With a national prison strike underway, San Quentin officials kept its 4,300 inmates restricted to their cells for the duration. Poor, the host from the outside, was locked out of the facility. Woods and fellow Ear Hustle producers, inmates on the inside, were locked in. No work got done.
Journalists inside and outside the world’s largest penal system know that, at any moment, prison officials can exert control and alter journalistic outcomes. That has slowed, but not stopped them; in fact, a few new players are bringing fresh attention to the stories of the 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in 6,100 U.S. prisons and jails.
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Bill Keller is doing his part. He left The New York Times in 2014 after 30 years – eight of them as executive editor – to run a new nonprofit journalism site focused on criminal justice. At The Marshall Project, funded by former journalist Neil Barsky who made his money as a hedge fund manager, Keller and his staff must accept prison rules to bring the voices of inmates to their stories. That often means reverting to snail mail, since inmates don’t have cellphones or internet service, and limited ability to make collect calls. “Every state has its own set of rules and obstacles,” he said. “There’s a saying among people who deal with prisons. ‘If you’ve seen one prison, you’ve seen one prison.’ ”
To pull off prize-winning journalism – abundant at The Marshall Project, which already has a Pulitzer on its wall – Keller relies on creative work-arounds. Consider its early September story, “A Turbulent Mind,” a profile of Andrew Goldstein, incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. Contributing writer and inmate John J. Lennon had been transferred there from Attica Correctional Facility. He’d written for The Marshall Project before, contributing to its popular Life Inside columns among other pieces. Lennon sent Keller a pitch – via the U.S. Postal Service. “Andrew Goldstein is here,” he wrote “His release date is Sept. 14. And he’s happy to be interviewed.” Keller took the pitch – and assigned himself to do the outside research and reporting to flesh out the piece. The result: a 4,000-word profile, with alternating passages written by Keller and Lennon. It hit just days before Goldstein would be freed after 19 years for killing Kendra Webdale by pushing her onto New York subway tracks when off his schizophrenia medication. Lennon was able to pull off the interview because his record for good behavior allowed him relatively free movement inside. “He’d drop by Andrew’s cell and just talk,” Keller said.
Lennon – a freelancer with clips from Esquire, The Atlantic and The New York Times – also knows how to navigate the many unwritten rules of prison journalism to avoid infuriating prison administrators or crossing other inmates. “Prisons are dangerous places,” Keller noted. “It’s not the same as being hounded on Twitter or Facebook because you wrote something unpopular. It can be a matter of losing your privileges, blowing your parole or being physically harmed.”
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The Keller-Barsky partnership has been key in the success of The Marshall Project. Much the same was true in 1976 when then-warden C. Paul Phelps tapped inmate Wilbert Rideau as co-editor of the fabled magazine, The Angolite, at the notoriously dangerous Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Rideau was serving time on a murder conviction
At the time, Rideau was 12 years into what would turn out to be a 44-year sentence. An eighth-grade dropout, Rideau learned to write while on death row, then volunteered for The Angolite.
The publication was segregated, just like the prison. “They wouldn’t allow me to write for the prison paper because that was reserved for only white boys,” he said. So he started publishing columns about prison life in a chain of black weeklies in Louisiana, which caught the attention of Phelps. When Phelps took over in Angola, he named Rideau and joined Billy Sinclair as co-editor of the paper. “He is the one who opened the doors. He is the one who ordered prison authorities to answer to my requests for information. To see budgets. To see receipts. To see whatever I wanted to see.”
During his 25-year run, “there was no censorship” of The Angolite, Rideau said. “That was the only time in history that happened. We knew it. And we acted accordingly. We had to do the best we could to prove that this actually worked.” The outside world decided it did work – as The Angolite attracted national attention for its reporting, along with a George Polk Award and Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, among others. A free man since 2005, Rideau now uses what he learned as a journalist to consult on capital punishment cases. “For 25 years, my job was to study every aspect of the criminal justice system and the prison world and write about it. That’s where I got my education,” he said.
Paul Wright is not convinced The Angolite – or any journalism created by inmates – operates without censorship. In fact, he said, prison officials actively fight the creation and distribution of journalism, which explains the steep decline in prison publications over the last half-century.
In 1959, U.S. prisons produced about 250 newspapers and magazines, according to research by Kevin D. Sawyer, associate editor of the San Quentin News. The number was down to about a dozen by 1998, according to “Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars,” a much-cited history of prison journalism by James McGrath Morris. Despite recent interest in the U.S. criminal justice system – think “Orange is the New Black,” “The New Jim Crow,” “13th” or “Serial” – the number of prison news organizations remains about the same as it did 20 years ago.
Wright’s Prison Legal News, published by the Human Rights Defense Center, is one of the survivors. Wright created the newsmagazine in 1990, while behind bars on a murder conviction in far north Washington state. He’s continued to run it – with four staff attorneys working full-time to fight for inmates’ rights to publish and distribute – since his 2003 release.
Every month, he and his staff of 20 produce a 72-page issue, with 90 percent to 95 percent of the content provided by inmates. They rely heavily on public documents, in full display in PLN’s September cover story about the rise of video-calling to prisons in Washington. The 11,000-word piece lays out, in meticulous detail, how the cost of phone calls has risen while virtual visits via video have taken hold.
Wright appreciates that newer news organizations – like Ear Hustle and The Marshall Project – paint prisoners in a human light. But Prison Legal News (and its new sister publication, the monthly Criminal Legal News) are more interested in hard-news stories, particularly ones packed with data, than ones focused on the lived experience of inmates. “The bulk of our subscribers are in prison,” Wright said. “We don’t need to tell them what it’s like.”
San Quentin hosts one of the most robust prison media organizations in the country. But that doesn’t mean its journalists have it easy.
Kevin D. Sawyer’s call is announced with a recording. “An inmate is calling from San Quentin State Prison.” When he hops on the line, Sawyer reports that a public information officer is sitting in on the call.
As the No. 2 editor and business manager at San Quentin News, Sawyer can use a dedicated phone in the News office. He and other San Quentin journalists don’t have access to the 700-plus inmates loon death row, those awaiting assignment to another prison or “the guys who are in the hole,” or in solitary confinement.
But they can approach any other inmate – and request and generally land an interview. If an inmate declines, it’s likely because he fears press attention might sour his case. “I’ve had people tell me the best thing to do is remain low-key,” Sawyer said.
San Quentin News was first published from 1940 to the mid-1980s, with an earlier publication, Wall City, published in the 1920s and ’30s. Revived in 2008, San Quentin News celebrated its 100th edition last year. It now publishes 30,000 copies of the 20-page paper, distributing them to all 35 California state prisons, as well as subscribers in 46 other states. About $5,500 in monthly expenses are covered by foundations, subscribers and supporters, with no state dollars. Currently, 11 outside advisers – many working or retired area journalists – help the News staff put out the paper. In May, the staff launched Wall City, a 32-page quarterly magazine, designed to give the audience, both inside and outside of prison, an in-depth look at issues that affect inmates after their release.
Sawyer, the 55-year-old resident historian at the News, works seven days a week for the News in San Quentin’s Media Center. The pay is “maybe 48 cents an hour, 38 cents an hour?” Sawyer said. “I forget how much I’m paid.” While he appreciates a little something – “Oh, great! I can buy some potato chips!” he joked – he didn’t sign up for the money. Instead, the work allows him to apply the skills he accumulated outside of San Quentin, during years at MCI Telecommunications and other employers. It allows him to share “useful information [readers] can use to change their lives.” And it provides a community of other writers he considers brothers.
Staffing is selective, Sawyer said. Most writers have a GED or more, many train in the prison Journalism Guild program and all work to improve their skills. “A person cannot be actively involved in gangs,” Sawyer explained. “They can’t have a lot of disciplinary problems. And obviously they can’t be one of the leaders of, let’s say, moving contraband through the prison. That’s widely understood.”
Veteran newspaper and radio journalist William Drummond started visiting San Quentin in 2012, co-teaching a journalism class to inmates. That led to an invitation to help with the News. Now, he brings journalism students from the University of California Berkeley with him each semester, to assist with editing, reporting, video work and even fund-raising and customer service tasks. The class is often life-changing for students, Drummond said. The work renewed his own faith in journalism, as well. When he leaves the prison, he thinks, “Yeah, I justified the amount of oxygen I consumed on this planet today.”
But like everyone involved in prison journalism, Drummond acknowledged the challenges. Inmates’ writing skills – from spelling to grammar – are often rough. Students have to be reminded to avoid overly familiar engagements with inmates. And, yes, Big Brother is watching. Explicitly. Every issue of the News must be reviewed and approved by an in-house P.I.O. and one at California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation offices in Sacramento.
San Quentin writers, and the volunteers who help them, know every word they write is vetted. “If you screw up they always have the option of shutting you down,” Drummond said. “We are working under a regime of self-censorship. That’s the way it is.”
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Nancy Mullane navigates the hurdles of San Quentin journalism daily. An investigative journalist with a book to her name and deep radio experience on her resume, she helped launch the only prison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 2015. The chapter and its members have earned Excellence in Journalism awards from SPJ’s Northern California chapter.
She’s been reporting from San Quentin for the past decade, even as she expanded her role inside as the SPJ liaison and coordinator of an ambitious weekly workshop with visiting journalists. She was particularly involved in Life of the Law, a Bay Area producer of audio stories and podcasts for which she served as executive director.
In August, she gave up her leadership role at Life of the Law – for a host of reasons, chief among them the fact that prison officials had decreed that only Ear Hustle could produce podcasts from San Quentin.
Mullane does not have issues with Ear Hustle stories. But she says giving the show exclusive rights to podcasting – and many other privileges – has created tensions for other media producers inside and outside San Quentin. While they adhere to the many state-mandated regulations for press access – mostly on how to seek and secure interviews – Ear Hustle gets freer rein. Another: As part of the Radiotopia-PRX network, it generates profits. That’s not a topic that administrators are willing to discuss, she said, but it’s the elephant in the room at SPJ meetings. “This isn’t about Nigel [Poor] but about what happens when the process falls apart,” she said.
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Poor, meanwhile, is scrambling to hit her release dates for the award-winning Ear Hustle. “Everything takes so long,” she said. “There is no internet. There is no email. Getting a script printed can take like an hour.”
The summer lockdown didn’t help. Now she and co-host Woods – she’s a visual artist on leave from California State University where she teaches photography and he’s a native of South Central Los Angeles serving 31 years to life for an attempted second-degree robbery – are working 50 or more hours a week to catch up. In their first two seasons, they told stories about living with cellmates, surviving on death row, pursuing romance, and even personal grooming. This season, they homed in on the lockdown for the first episode, then explored immigrants in prison and the history of San Quentin itself. Poor hopes future episodes will include the voices of inmates from other California prisons, especially those of women. That became more of a priority when the corrections department began making Ear Hustle available to all of California’s prisons with the start of Season 3.
Ear Hustle’s aim – like that of every other media organization seeking to tell stories about life behind bars – is to offer ever-more complex stories while “working in the framework of the institution.”
“I don’t want to make prison look better than it is,” Poor said. “It’s still a very difficult place. It’s still a violent place.”
But it’s also a place filled with experiences relatable to Ear Hustle’s devoted listeners: celebrating birthdays, sharing tight quarters, satisfying sexual desires, staying in touch with family, aging, living with hope and despair.
Before she began volunteering at San Quentin, Poor said, “I didn’t know there was humor inside. I didn’t know there was compassion. Or that they were learning or struggling to be a parent.”
Three seasons in, Poor and her crew are aiming to convey the complexities and contradictions of the men whose stories they tell. In the end, she wants listeners to consider: “You have a life when you’re inside.”
Patricia Gallagher Newberry is area director of the Journalism Program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and president-elect of SPJ.
Postscript: On the day before Thanksgiving, California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted Earlonne Woods, noting that he “shared meaningful stories from those inside prisons” among the reasons. Now 47, with 20 years behind bars, Woods will continue as a Ear Hustle producer and tell stories about his re-entry into society. Nigel Poor is among those who submitted a letter for support for Woods’s release.