It’s not every day the New York Times comes calling.
Prison Journalism Project exists to train incarcerated writers in the discipline of journalism. Almost 2 million people are behind bars in the United States, locked away in jails and prisons funded by American tax dollars, with little to no independent oversight. The sprawling and complex system known as mass incarceration demands scrutiny — and no one is better situated to provide it than incarcerated people themselves.
When an editor on the New York Times opinion desk reached out looking for a writer who could explain the consequences of decades-high inflation inside prison, we knew we had an important opportunity. The Times counts among its audience people with power to shape policy and culture.
We also knew a writer.
Patrick Irving, who is incarcerated in Idaho, writes a monthly newsletter called First Amend This!, which provides what he calls “an insider look at issues affecting the Idaho Department of Corrections community.” In the May edition, he reported on price increases at his prison commissary instituted by the Keefe Commissary Network, a private company. They were extreme. In some cases, the cost of ordinary items (squeeze cheese, grape jelly and hot cocoa among them) had spiked 100% or more. Irving had also surfaced information about the cost-sharing arrangement between Keefe and IDOC, which he obtained through a public records request.
Irving had sent PJP a story about these changes. The piece showed with attributed facts how the fluctuations of the economy — and the whims of a private corporation — were affecting life inside. During the fact-checking of his piece, Irving wrote multiple times to refine and clarify certain claims and figures after double- and triple-checking. His journalistic integrity was evident.
We asked Irving if he’d be interested in turning his reporting into a personal essay for the New York Times.
“Wow,” Irving wrote over JPay, the prison e-communications platform. “I’m intimidated, but also able to set aside the next few days to give it my best.”
Irving spent the weekend writing out a draft. He started on paper, then typed it into his Securus JP6S tablet, sending it back before deadline. The Times’ editor suggested that we send them the raw draft, but we knew from our own experience working in newsrooms that no reporter sends a rough draft to a senior editor in New York without their bureau chief first going through at least one round of edits.
Just as bureaus want to make sure stories are as polished as possible, part of PJP’s mission is to provide similar newsroom support for our writers, so we took first crack at an edit. As Irving’s editor, I pointed out assertions to fact-check, paragraphs to rework and gaps to fill. Yukari Kane, PJP’s editor-in-chief, said at one point, “We want to make sure he’s hitting all the points he should to really represent the incarcerated voice.”
When the Times editor requested more context, we addressed what we could, then sent Irving a detailed memo via JPay with over a dozen questions. We were lucky that Irving was able to turn around his responses quickly. Depending on the state and prison, it’s often not the case. Some corrections departments take a few days to screen messages before approving them in either direction. Had Irving been a writer in Texas — which he once was in a privately run prison on the Texas-Mexico border — we would have had to send our questions via postal mail because most do not have access to electronic messaging.
In the subsequent days, I spent several hours on the phone with Irving in 30-minute increments, the maximum time permitted for a phone call in his prison. We clarified the sources of facts and figures and painstakingly reviewed the price hikes inside his prison, which were the basis for his story. I checked what I could from the outside, he from the inside. To confirm a previous promotional price for digital stamps — required to send electronic messages to and from inside — I sought out old Facebook posts from IDOC. Irving, meanwhile, tracked down receipts from commissary and previous inventory lists to confirm prior prices. At one point we had to revise the piece as soon as we edited it because the vendor announced more price adjustments and item changes.
Irving was a relatively new writer for PJP. While many of PJP’s writers are new to journalism and learn about professionalism and integrity through PJP, Irving showed up with an exceptional understanding of journalistic responsibility. Throughout the process, he set three priorities: the accuracy of his copy, the importance of sharing his reporting with the public, and the sound of his sentences — in that order.
As the final step, the PJP editor read the entire draft aloud to him before sending it back to the Times for more edits, copy editing and fact-checking.
We sent memos to Irving with numbered questions, and his responses would look something like this:
“1) I have a Sriracha bottle. It is 17 oz.
“2) The 2 oz. squeeze cheese packet was raised to $.65. It’s included in the JPay attachment below.
“3) I can confirm from the old price list that the cocoa used to come in a 10 oz. I now see in the attachment the new bag is only 9 oz.
“4) From memory and an old price list, I can confirm the sweetener used to and still comes as a box of 100 packets.
“5) Looking at a recent receipt, an old commissary list and the attachment, I can confirm the size and price of sausages is correct.”
The day before Irving’s story was scheduled to run, we asked him what he learned from this process. He wrote back the following:
“1) I must add an extra level of scrutiny to the work that I submit. Because I was working in a bit of a rush, I missed necessary qualifiers and allowed old information to settle in my piece. As Mason said in revision, ‘Things are always changing, and this is why we fact check.’ That will be my motto moving forward.
“2) I learned the importance of having reference materials on hand. I consulted PEN America’s ‘The Sentences That Create Us,’ when I received the assignment. It took a few chapters, including the section contributed by PJP to find my bearings. I also had an old NYT style guide that I used for the first time. I’ll run much of my work through that from now on.
“3) I realized the importance of trusting the work I’ve put into my journalism and of embracing the struggle as I work through my drafts.”
“I feel as though I experienced some sense of newsroom camaraderie, which was a very cool feeling, because I’ve not been able to work with other newsies before,” continued Irving. “It’s a very pleasant feeling to be working as a team.
“To be published in the Times is huge. But there is a great deal of work to be done … and it would be a shame to not capture every bit of momentum this opportunity provides and use it to open every door we possibly can.”
Irving said he planned to write letters and direct others toward his article as well as his blog and PJP’s work.
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.