I have a particular interest and respect for prison journalists, as I have been a working journalist — who happens to be in prison — for nearly 37 years.
When I started this bit back in the early 1980s, I was able to participate in what I remember as the golden age of prison journalism, when prisons around the country encouraged their prisoners to be involved with prison newspapers.
You had the gold standards: The Angolite (Angola, LA), The Menard Times (Menard, IL), and many others. Then you had the grandfather of them all, the paper that I edited from 1985 to 1989, The Prison Mirror (Stillwater, MN).
During my tenure as editor, it was my mission to expand prison journalism beyond the walls to create more than just a prison rag for the 1,400 men who resided at Stillwater, but to create a window to our world for the community at large. We aimed to expand well beyond the crimes that we committed to get here and focus on what we were doing while we were confined.
The storylines from my writers included stories about guys who had won awards for bonsai trees, others who expertly detailed school buses and other general prison fare.
When I revamped the publication during my tenure, I based it on the format made famous by USA Today. More than anything I wanted the men who were my community to have a record of their achievements that was memorialized in a fashion that exuded pride for them, their children, and their families.
Success breeds interest, and through community contacts, we were able to expand beyond prison stories. Among the cover stories in the paper were interviews with the likes of the late Ed Bradley from the “60 Minutes” television program; Andrew Young, ambassador and mayor of Atlanta; educator Marva Collins; political activist and New Alliance Party presidential candidate Lenora Fulani; the boxer George Foreman; and writer John Edgar Wideman.
We participated in the American Penal Press awards that were run by Southern Illinois University’s School of Journalism, and I am proud to say my writers redefined how people thought about prison journalists and our professionalism was rewarded with numerous community and national journalism awards.
If you go to the Minnesota Historical Society’s website, you can view The Prison Mirror (or The Mirror, as I deemphasized the word “prison” during my tenure). The years ranged from April 1, 1985, to May 1989. If you go on that site, please check out the historical richness that The Prison Mirror represents.
Founded and originally funded by Cole, Robert and James Younger (along with the warden of the then territorial prison), it is the oldest continuously published prison publication in the world, and was the oldest continuously published paper in or out of prisons west of the Mississippi. The paper was founded on August 10, 1887.
I was honored to be the keeper of the flame for that paper, and when I needed inspiration, I would sit for hours and read the original broadsheets, dusty and often delicate, but the words were printed clearly and the message that my predecessors conveyed were some of the most poignant reading I’ve ever had the privilege to view.
If you are doing a course on prison journalism, please include the rich history of journalism embodied in publications like The Prison Mirror; The Angolite; The Menard Times; Vienna In Progress; The Trojan (Leavenworth); The Echo (Texas) and numerous other prison publications that once existed and were written, edited and produced by men and women around the country who felt that it was their duty to tell a story and to not allow the mainstream media to define them or their peers.
I could go on and on about prison journalism as I viewed it for those five years. When I would kick the asses of all the other prison papers in the country at the Penal Press Awards year after year, some of my most cherished possessions are the letters that my vanquished peers would send to me.
We were a small community of editors, yet we all knew the importance of what we were doing. Though we competed with each other for the honors, we all shared pride in each other’s successes.
I’m still a working journalist. Please do not forget the rich history that is prison journalism in this country.
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.