Despite the challenges, a prison yard is filled with a never-ending stock of fascinating stories. I’ve discovered in 30-plus years of listening to these stories that people just want to be heard and feel connected. They want to know their life is more than what’s confined in a tiny cage.
That was evident in my first jailhouse interview, which happened in the 1990s at the Los Angeles County Jail.
I interviewed my cell neighbor, Javier Marquez, who was the shot caller for the prison row we lived in. A born leader, Marquez could have gone far in life. Unfortunately, his journey as a member of a notorious LA gang led him to prison.
When Marquez told me his story, I asked him if I could quote him on it. He agreed, perhaps in the hopes his story would outlive his life sentence.
Marquez grew up living in a Glendale shoe factory parking lot; his four-person family lived in a station wagon. Their mother worked double shifts in the factory.
Every morning Javy would search for bottles of milk on doorsteps to feed his baby brother. At night, he’d fend for himself on the streets so his mother had one less mouth to feed.
It’s no wonder he found solace and companionship in a gang. Thirty years later, the interview still resonates with me.
Here are five tips for getting your own impactful interviews.
Tip 1: Get permission to use the story.
Fifteen years later, I was writing for a prison newspaper, The Corcoran Sun, at California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran, when Phil Spector showed up.
Spector, a Grammy Award-winning record producer, was sent to prison for killing actress Lana Clarkson.
I saw him on the recreation yard in passing, so I told him I published The Corcoran Sun and asked him if he’d like to do an interview. He said yes.
At that time, inter-building communication was sparse, but I managed to get over to the building where Spector resided and finagled a dayroom table to chat with him.
He looked like he was semi-conscious from heavy medication, but he came alive when asked about his life. He spoke of working with John Lennon and Elvis and the tragedy that sent him to prison. I only had about 45 minutes with him, but I filled a legal tablet with notes before the tower guard cut us off.
Spector’s story appeared in the next issue of The Corcoran Sun, and some months later I was transferred to another living area. I forgot about his interview until a heavily equipped group of officers appeared at my cell. They were there to “get the notes from the Spector interview.”
Someone had sent a copy of the interview to TMZ, and TMZ wanted The Corcoran Sun to help with a follow-up interview.
Tip 2: Always be alert for a good story.
Keep plenty of paper and pens with you. Get your subject talking about something they’re really interested in (themselves). Always take and keep notes.
A few years after the Spector story, I started another newspaper, The Mule Creek Post, at Mule Creek State Prison. A couple times, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation secretary showed up in the newsroom.
In that scenario, you’ve got maybe 10 seconds to approach them and get them talking before they move the tour along. You need a catchy opener and a good follow-up question.
On one of those occasions, Ralph Diaz, the secretary at that time, was accompanied by Jon S. Tigar, a U.S. District Court judge for Northern California. Tigar was part of the federal three-judge panel that, in 2009, imposed a state prison population cap for California to combat overcrowding.
I asked Secretary Diaz for the current CDCR population status. He pulled out his cellphone and began reciting numbers. And, even better, Tigar explained how the panel was enforcing their ruling.
Tip 3: Always be ready, even when you’re not.
Look for your opening. Get them laughing.
When Kathleen Allison, another former CDCR secretary, showed up, the circumstances were very different. Allison didn’t do interviews. But she liked to talk.
She had taken over as CDCR secretary during the COVID-19 pandemic, after beginning her career with the corrections department as a medical technical assistant.
I saw my opening when she pointed out that CDCR had intentionally focused on health care needs for the sick and elderly during the pandemic.
She had started out by saying, “I think you can relate to this,” alluding to the fact that I’m a prisoner of advanced age.
I followed with, “Don’t you think that given the amount of elderly inmates in the system and the high costs of taking care of them that we could find an easy way to alleviate some of these issues?”
She responded, “You mean, let them out?”
And I shot back, “May I quote you on that?”
The exchange elicited a roomful of laughter. Suddenly, Allison was the funniest, most delightful person in the room. She was also answering questions. Twenty minutes later, as she was leaving, she leaned in and whispered to me, “You know, I never do interviews.”
Tip 4: Be prepared to be surprised.
Keep an open mind about what the story might become.
The most personally impactful jailhouse interview I ever did came as a complete surprise. The newspaper was working on a story about childhood abuse and trauma, and we had come across information that there is significant overlap between those in prison and foster care. This implied that many incarcerated people had experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment.
I surveyed 100 prisoners, asking three questions: “Were you a victim of childhood abuse and trauma?” “How did it impact your criminality and imprisonment?” “Would you like to talk about it?”
The very first person I interviewed was a 60-something building porter. He was cleaning the shower and agreed to an interview. I asked him the first question, to which he replied, “No, I never was abused or anything like that.”
Then he quit scrubbing the shower, stood up and thought for a few seconds before adding, “Well, my mother did try to kill me when I was a baby.”
He stared into the distance. There were tears in his eyes. It felt like this was the first time he’d ever really thought about it, or maybe the first time anybody had asked. He then returned to cleaning the shower. “I don’t think that had anything to do with nothing though,” he added. “We don’t never talk about none of that.”
Those few statements were the entire interview. I didn’t ask anything else. I was too stunned. What he had shared was a much bigger story than I had planned. Almost all of the 100 prisoners interviewed responded that they had been exposed to childhood abuse and trauma.
Tip 5: Respect your source.
Give the person you are interviewing respect, dignity and care. Even the most hardened criminals can have damaged souls. Don’t judge them by the worst thing they have ever done. Give them a chance. What they share with you might just change the way you look at reporting — and your life.
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.