Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Kevin Sawyer at San Quentin State Prison
Kevin Sawyer (Photo by Peter Merts)

This story was originally published on Jan. 8, 2021. Some numbers and elements have been updated to reflect a May 3, 2023, republication date.

Writing while Black. That’s an unconscionable sin when you’re in prison, particularly when there’s pressure to embrace silence out of fear of being placed in solitary confinement.

In prison, journalists and other writers have no reasonable expectation of privacy. There’s no such thing as a warrantless search, and never mind California’s shield law, which gives journalists the right to protect the identity of confidential sources. Anything written in a prisoner’s possession or personal property is fair game to the “thought police.” And it’s likely to be used against the writer. 

Nearly 50 years after San Quentin prison guards assassinated prisoner, writer and political activist George Jackson in what they called an escape attempt, his ghost still haunts the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. 

I’m a writer and journalist who wrote primarily for the inmate-run publication San Quentin News at the prison of the same name. When the Columbia Journalism Review published a story about us in 2014, the News had a print run of about 11,500. Today it’s 35,000. For more than four years I’ve served as associate editor, working behind the scenes as the paper’s business manager.

I’m no Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jack Henry Abbott, Eldridge Cleaver or George Jackson, but that didn’t stop the prison’s “goon squad” from attempting to shut me down from reading and writing.

Eleven years ago, I was transferred from Folsom State Prison to San Quentin, the infamous Bastille by the Bay. It was done as part of California’s effort to reduce its prison population. 

When it was discovered in my property that I’d done a lot of unpopular writing and reading, I was deemed a “revolutionary” and possibly a Black Guerrilla Family gang member or affiliate. My writing, notes, quotes and research were confiscated by the prison’s “goon squad.” That’s how it works in a place designed not so much to keep men and women inside but to keep the public out.

At the time (and to this day), I’d remained disciplinary free, which is no small undertaking in prison. A guard viewed my reading and writing regimen as inflammatory. 

“Every book George Jackson’s read, you’ve read,” a prison guard working in the Institutional Gang Investigations unit told me months after seizing my materials. 

When confronted on the matter, most writers would probably shrink, abandon their rights under the First Amendment, and concede defeat. Not me.

With the threat of being falsely identified as a gang member looming over my head like the sword of Damocles, I filed a grievance to end the profiling. When a prisoner is maligned, it has a direct impact on whether the state’s parole board finds him or her suitable for release. I requested my record be purged of any misleading gang information, and also that my materials be returned.

After exhausting my administrative remedies with San Quentin, I followed up with a federal civil rights suit, Sawyer v. Chappell et al. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the case on summary judgment. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals “reversed and remanded” the case back down on three issues. The case was settled in 2020. 

When a man’s freedom is taken away, not all of his rights are discarded. Some rights are preserved. But more important, when the past becomes a reminder of what a man is no longer, all he has are his words. A prisoner’s word has to mean something in prison because that’s all that’s left. His word fortifies his reputation as someone who is “solid.” If your word ain’t shit, you ain’t shit. It’s that simple. And I don’t write for the state. I write for the people. 

At a time when the flaws in our criminal justice system are well known and well documented, experts and advocates say a shift in how the media covers prisons and people impacted by incarceration is long overdue.

If I don’t get out of prison soon, look forward to more of my writings about incarceration. Like I said, I’m nothing like my aforementioned predecessors, but I’m nobody’s punk or Guerrilla either. I’m a writer and a trained, college-educated journalist. More than a decade later, I’m still fighting for my right to write and yours too. Because as George Jackson said: “It should never be easy for them to destroy us.”

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. 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 and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.