This was first published in PJP’s Dec. 2021 newsletter, “Inside Story: Under the Hood.”
When Prison Journalism Project launched in June 2020, our initial focus was strictly an online publication to disseminate information about COVID-19 in prisons. We saw that outside news organizations struggled to access this information, so we asked inside writers for reports about their experiences.
They answered our call and then some! Since then, PJP has mushroomed into a full digital magazine that followed our writers lead to go well beyond COVID-19 and address other aspects of prison life and the realities of being inside the criminal justice system. We publish journalism, opinion, personal essays, poetry and art daily. To date, more than 400 writers in 35 states, Canada and the U.K. have submitted more than 1,100 stories.
But being only available online made it hard to get their work inside the walls. We typically send writers copies of their stories after they are published, but they wanted to read each other’s work, and we wanted to build a community where they could learn from each other as well. Thus, PJP x Inside was born as a print newspaper by incarcerated people for incarcerated people. I wish you could hold our first issue in your hands. (If you are a prison educator who would like print copies to distribute to students and writers inside, please send a request to firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was a huge challenge to decide what to include because we only had a budget for eight pages. The PJP team and our summer interns helped decide on the final selection. Ultimately, we selected stories that demonstrated the biggest trends in this year’s submissions, from mental health and relationships to commentary on current events. We curated the digest to include work from first-time and regular contributors from all corners of the country.
Our cover story was a powerful essay from Bob R. Williams Jr. called “Dying in the Samurai Way” about how he copes with serving a death sentence at San Quentin State Prison. The double-spread on the middle pages featured a special section on COVID-19’s impact on prisons across the country. We balanced commentary on Derek Chauvin’s sentencing and the need for stronger re-entry support with poetry.
In keeping with PJP’s educational mission, we also included a brief note with each selection to explain what drew us to the piece. A section called “The Anatomy of a Story” offered a reported article fully annotated by our PJP J-School faculty, so we could give inside readers a glimpse into how journalism can be done behind the walls.
We had originally planned to feature one of PJP’s strongest pieces from last year — Joe Garcia’s two-part story on a murder at San Quentin published online as “Death in the Midnight Hour” and “COVID-19 Surrounds San Quentin Murder.” But because of the violence at the heart of the story, we were worried that stricter prison administrators might not allow PJP x Inside if we included it. After consulting with a few of our contributing writers and advisory board members, we decided to replace this story with another piece by Joe, describing the inside reaction to the presidential election results called “The Night Biden Won.” Was the abundance of caution necessary? We don’t know, but we do know that zero newspapers have been returned to us yet.
Producing a beautiful product to showcase our writer’s work was important to us. We were inspired by East Lansing Info (ELi), a digital-first local newspaper in Michigan that had made a similar move to produce a companion print version. Alice Dreger, ELi’s executive director and publisher, mentored us and introduced us to designer Cait Palmiter, who laid out PJP x Inside and also created our new logo.
And on October 20, we sent out 577 copies to our inside writers, and another 192 to educational programs and other stakeholders. Here’s what they had to say:
“Wow! I just received my first copy of PJP x Inside. This made my day; it will make my entire week good! It renewed my writer’s energy. After almost 33 years in here, it is easy to slowly drift into the depths of an abyss. Receiving this newspaper, I climbed out of my funk and decided to dust off the writer’s hat. Thank you for lifting up my — and hopefully others in similar circumstances — spirits up! I can’t say it enough. Thank you!”
— Rudy Vandenborre, Florida
“Just received a copy of ‘Inside’ in the mail! Amazing! To you guys on the masthead, thank you and great work in a really short span of time. The issue fills me with the hope of possibility. I will do my best to honor what you’ve done by giving you my all in submissions. Great work!”
— Reginald Stephens, New York
“Hello, PJP Family, I received the hard copy of the newspaper. Awesome! Plan to see my name in print. Thank you.”
— Artemus Blankenship, California
It’s been an incredible journey, starting a newspaper from scratch, and hearing how much it meant to our incarcerated writers made all of the hard work so worth it. Right now, we plan to publish an eight-page issue of PJP x Inside twice a year.
That first issue of PJP x Inside we put together? We were lucky to partner with ELi’s printer, BRD Printing, Inc., and from start to finish, we invested $2,391.30 for 3,000 copies (including postage).
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.