Illustration by O. Smith

The following are notes from a speech that San Quentin News’ Journalism Guild chairperson Joe Garcia gave during an informational meeting at San Quentin State Prison about writing for the prison newspaper.

Welcome Everyone,

This class is about the power of journalism. Now what does that mean?

Think about the power of revealing the truth…How do we paint a picture of the truth?

It sounds so simple.

How do we communicate accurately and effectively?

That’s really what journalism is all about, and that’s what we hope to teach you.

Each one of you has a voice and a story — we’ve all seen some shit, right? Think about the things we’ve all been through during the last year and a half.

As journalists, we are responsible for shedding light on the truth of mass incarceration.

That’s my job, that’s my purpose. Not everyone behind bars wants to take on this duty.

But all of you here today are thinking about it. That’s all I ask right now. Just think about it.

A lot of the work we do here is about chasing something bigger than ourselves. Our whole mission is about shifting the narrative through truth.

I murdered another person — but that’s not all I am. You all know this — once we get convicted of a crime, the world forgets about us. But that’s not the end of the story.

I have met — and continue to meet — a lot of really good people every day in prison. We all know good, worthwhile people that society labels as the worst criminals.

There’s a way to discuss all the stuff without overdoing it. To be a journalist, you have to be objective, you have to try to avoid emotion — often, you have to remove yourself and your opinions.

But when you tell a story objectively — plain and simple — it’s actually more compelling and more powerful.

Has everyone here seen the full nine minute video of George Floyd [being killed]?

If you’ve seen that, there’s no need for me to give you any opinion or cry or get angry or anything. The truth speaks for itself.

All we can do here is use our eyes and our words to report the truth.

I guarantee you — if you invest your time in learning how to report the truth — you will become a better person.

You’ll see things more clearly. You’ll be able to write cleanly and smoothly. Your ideas will become streamlined. You’ll be able to advocate for yourself with impact.

How many lifers have we got here? Whether you realize it or not, writing and reporting will help you prepare and speak in front of the parole board. It’s just a natural by-product.

I can give you all the tools. I can give you a platform to present your writing.

Every single one of you here — you have this in you. I’ve spoken one-on-one with all of you. I’ve seen all of you with my own eyes.

We all have different levels of experience, different levels of education, but none of that matters to me. If you’re willing to put in the work, willing to accept constructive criticism, there’s no stopping what you can accomplish. We can do all this together.

You can make a difference. (Don’t forget that.)

I started out in this class as a student. Our editor-in-chief started out in the Journalism Guild. If you commit to us, I promise you, we will commit to you. And really, you’ll end up committing to yourself and each other.

The big reason for this orientation — and for the weekly classes — is so that you can all see each other and get to know each other. Every Friday morning — this is our space — this is your space. I will be here for you.

I really believe in community. That’s the biggest personal lesson I’ve learned from my incarceration. We are all in this struggle together. So please, look around. Lots of you might walk past each other on the (recreational) yard or at chow (hall) or wherever, but we’re going to start really connecting as the weeks go by.

And you’re going to end up learning all kinds of stuff from each other — more than from me.

This newspaper is run by us, by incarcerated folks. That does not happen often. And when I say us, that includes you guys.

This newspaper goes to every California prison, and it gets mailed all around the world — and it’s totally online, too.

Story by story, article by article, issue by issue, we have the power to change people’s minds, to change policy. That’s the endgame — to break down this system of mass incarceration.

I invite you all to get involved. Right now, we really do need writers. We need you. It’s gonna take some hard work, but it’s also really rewarding. I have fun all day, believe me. I love this stuff.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Joe Garcia

Joe is a journalist at San Quentin State Prison and a staff reporter for San Quentin News. A San Francisco native with no connection to the carceral system before his arrest, Joe first believed prisons were filled with the worst people imaginable. But within his first week in Los Angeles County Jail, he found himself surrounded by people with rich, complex stories. Joe requested a transfer to San Quentin with the express purpose of working for the prisoner-run newspaper and now helps fellow prisoners find their voices as writers. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.