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As a journalist who is imprisoned, I have a somewhat unfair “inside” advantage when I report stories. Unlike outside journalists who don’t have the luxury of walking around a prison to ask inmates questions, I’m able to do unrestricted interviews with any prisoner I come into contact with on the yard. I can also encourage prisoners to answer survey questions without the permission of the warden or the aid of a public information officer (PIO). 

Outside reporters who have permission to enter a prison in California must do so under escort of a PIO and they are not allowed to seek interviews with a specific prisoner. 

That regulation does not apply to me at San Quentin because I live there. I studied statistics and research methods in college, so I know how to gather information, rank my data and create charts and graphs. I use that knowledge to conduct controlled surveys that I publish in San Quentin News, where I am on the staff. The Prison Journalism Project (PJP) has also published my survey on attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccination. 

To conduct a survey, I type my questions about five times on one page — in two columns on a single sheet of paper — to produce 10 individual survey copies. Then I make about 10 to 15 copies of the page and cut them up to distribute among the inmate population. I typically have to pass out about 130 surveys to get 100 good or complete surveys returned. 

For example, when I surveyed 100 prisoners inside San Quentin’s West Block housing unit about whether they would get vaccinated for COVID-19, I asked basic questions such as age, sentence and the length of time incarcerated in addition to asking whether they would get vaccinated. I also provided a small space for comments. Because they were anonymous, I could not go back to someone who failed to complete all questions. 

Like any survey, the questions vary, based on what the story is about. For many reasons I may have to target a specific group of prisoners or a specific inmate to do an interview. 

However, generally speaking it’s important to include all races (i.e., Black, Hispanic/Latino(a), White, Asian and other) to make sure your results are balanced. In my opinion, for example, it would be presumptuous and biased to assume Blacks are the only group with views on Black Lives Matter or that Asians are the only leading authorities on hate crimes against Asians. Every group in prison should have a voice. 

When I pass my surveys out, I’m also careful to explain what my story is about and where I intend to have it published. And, unlike some journalists who sensationalize what takes place in prison, I make it clear that I won’t exploit anyone for a story.

Like outside, there is a level of skepticism and distrust of the media by some prisoners. I’ve seen circumstances where an outside reporter has taken an inmate’s statement out of context regarding the nature of a conviction. If a parole board reads that and sees how it contradicts the state’s official record, it can prove disastrous at a parole hearing.

Prison journalism has its own unwritten code of ethics. Because we’re all convicts we have an obligation to “do no harm” to each other. I have to live with these guys. Freedom of the press can result in a swift and decisive violation of one’s personhood. 

After I collect the 3-inch-by-5-inch slips of paper, I record and transcribe the answers and data onto a single page. I might use comments from the survey to write a story or as a starting point when I interview people directly. I usually do both. 

At that point I have enough information to write a story that is unique to San Quentin and a specific housing unit within the prison. The data collected typically helps the story write itself. I’m always open to changes and suggestions made by editors, but surveys tend to not be problematic because of their data-driven nature. 

The only difficulty in writing a story based on a survey is all the footwork involved to pass them out. I walk up and down five tiers from cell to cell. But it’s worth it. 

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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Kevin D. Sawyer

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing writer and the associate editor for San Quentin News and a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is an African American native of San Francisco and has written numerous short stories, memoirs, essays, poems and journals. Some of his work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction, a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism, and part of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. Prior to incarceration, Kevin worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.