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150th edition of the San Quentin News
Image courtesy of San Quentin News

This article was first published by San Quentin News, a newspaper that reports on rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice from inside San Quentin State Prison. Visit SQN’s website or follow them on Twitter. Aside from the headline, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

Struggles, tragedies and triumphs are what a good story and powerful dynasties are built on. SQNews is honored to reach another milestone by celebrating our 150th edition.

This illustrious milestone was almost derailed by the deadly Covid-19 outbreak that claimed 28 of our incarcerated peers’ lives. Seven SQNews staff also paroled throughout the Covid-19 outbreak, leaving a huge void in our production team.

We found ourselves without our executive editor, managing editor, photographer and both of our layout designers. We were proud of their releases; some of their sentences were commuted by Gov. Gavin Newsom and others were found suitable at the parole board.

We immediately began to rebuild our team from scratch and promote from within our existing staff. We started holding our Journalism Guild classes within the housing units. This allowed us to train new reporters.

For months, most of the staff members were separated. We were allowed to interact with only those in our own building or housing unit. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world’s societies and businesses, sparking shelter-in-place orders. These protocols shut down prison programs nationwide as well. SQNews production screeched to a halt like the rest of the world. But our dedicated and persistent outside advisers contacted San Quentin Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation headquarters to revive the newspaper.

While other media outlets were covering the rise of Covid-19 and its associated deaths around the world and the nation, incarcerated voices were missing. CDCR, San Quentin administration and our advisers worked out a correspondence program whereby SQNews staff could receive research and source material through the administration’s office.

Aly Tamboura, former SQNews layout designer, was instrumental in getting the Friends of San Quentin News, our support network, a grant to fund a fellowship program for our paroled staff members. The paroled staff was tasked with research, transcribing the incarcerated staff’s articles and laying out the paper. Bi-weekly conference calls were held with the SQNews editor-in-chief, advisers and prison administrators for updates and to insure that the mission of “written by the incarcerated” was intact. In this way, SQNews was able to sustain production for the 14 months the staff was out of the newsroom.

In 2021, SQNews won five awards from the California News Publishers Association for the Best of the Best of 2020 contest. Two of those awards were for our coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak within the prison.

Eventually, SQNews returned to the newsroom fully staffed. The newspaper was once again being designed within the prison walls. But the new staff had to learn to produce the paper quickly, because different Covid-19 variants have caused multiple quarantines within the prison. However, the staff’s passion for reporting never wavered. The hard work paid off when SQNews won sevenCNPA awards in the 2021 contest.

For 82 years, the SQNews has continued to find ways to thrive and reinvent. In 2008, after a more than 20-year hiatus, the newspaper was resurrected. Like the proverbial phoenix that had risen out of the ashes, the newspaper has weathered periods of administration suspensions, funding challenges and the tragic death of our inspirational leader Arnulfo Garcia.

In January 2018, SQNews celebrated its 100th edition. This milestone came after enduring the closure of the print shop in 2010, including a 45-day administrative suspension in 2014 for what was deemed to be “circumventing the editorial process.”

In 2010, the SQNews was able to survive when Michael “Harry O” Harris, co-founder of Death Row Records and SQNews editor-in-chief (at the time), paid out of his own pocket for the Marin Sun Printing company to print the paper. However, Harris was transferred to federal prison after his state sentence was completed, and the newspaper was faced with another funding challenge.

SQNews adviser Steve McNamara stepped in and created the Prison Media Project that helped supplement funding generated from grants and donations. It was after a large grant from The Reva and David Logan Foundation and the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation that the newspaper fundraising team expanded with the creation of the Friends of San Quentin News with its fiscal sponsor, the Social Good Fund.

In 2017, SQNews hired its first development manager, Lisa Adams, who was formerly incarcerated. Adams has since moved on and FoSQN is now headed by Jesse Vasquez, former SQNews Editor in Chief, who paroled.

But it was the 2014 suspension that threatened the newspaper with another permanent shutdown. However, because of the passion of the writing, and the commitment to social justice and rehabilitation during that time of suspension, the SQNews won The James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. Winning the award generated national media attention from The New York Times, the Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review, including a host of California publications.

CDCR also took notice. A CDCR headquarters press team stepped into the newsroom and the staff just knew it was over, but the CDCR team said, “We are not here to shut you down; we are here to help you become better.” With the added support of the administration, SQNews has created a model to expand and renew prison journalism within CDCR as well as prisons nationwide.

SQNews’ early staff had to develop an editorial structure and learn journalistic integrity all under the tutelage of retired professional journalists. In 2008, the SQNews was a four-page monthly printed on an outdated printing press with only 5,000 copies circulating within the prison walls.

In 2022, the newspaper has grown to 24 pages with a circulation of 35,000 copies that are sent to all 36 California prisons, individual donors and prisoners nationwide. This 150th edition is dedicated to all our readers. Without your support, we would not able to survive. And this is a testament that incarcerated voices matter.

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.

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is the former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He became a reporter the day he arrived at San Quentin.