Prison Journalism Navigator
Safety of Staff
When working with incarcerated writers and journalists, their safety is an important consideration because they are the ones who are reporting on stories that prison administrations or people in their communities may not want them to cover. (At PJP, we are embarking on a project in consultation with Global Press Institute to develop thoughtful policies and procedures that would allow us to work with them responsibly).
However, your safety and the safety of outside staff cannot be overlooked either.
When PJP first started its work, we incorporated some basic practices — since we operated virtually and didn’t have a physical office, we signed on with a mail scanning service that could receive our mail, so no one had to use their home addresses. We also set up organizational accounts with electronic prison messaging services like JPay.
But we also believed in providing the personal touch. We signed our names at the bottom of letters, and we addressed our writers by their first names.
We still very much believe that their stories are important and that there is a lot of talent and potential behind the walls. However, our work over the last two years has also forced us to confront the uncomfortable reality that we can never know our hundreds of writers just through their stories. What they say in their stories may be one aspect of who they are, but there may be other aspects that we don’t understand or know.
While there haven’t been many incidents, we had several writers who have been uncomfortably aggressive, usually when they felt we were not responsive quickly enough. We’ve also received insistent messages asking us for help often outside of our educational and journalistic mission. And we’ve had a few who were overly familiar with specific staff members.
When we sought advice from a formerly incarcerated friend of PJP, he reminded us that “we’re working with broken individuals.” He added that they were broken by the environments in which they grew up, their life choices before prison and by the system.
One of PJP’s contributing writers also explained to us that people inside face so many disappointments that some of them end up unleashing their pent up frustrations on the most accessible organization.
He advised against interacting with incarcerated communities according to outside rules and norms because most of them have never experienced that world and don’t understand those boundaries and expectations, particularly in a professional setting. The example he provided was our use of our writers’ first names. In prisons, the use of first names connotes strong familiarity, he said. He suggested we refer to people with honorifics like Mr. or Ms.
“Just treat us with courtesy and respect,” he said. “That’s all we’re looking for.” He advised that we also include a disclaimer with every correspondence to set expectations of what we do and don’t do.
While you may not need to adopt policies and procedures to the extent we have, particularly if you’re working with a prison journalist in a limited capacity, we are sharing our Safety Policy below as a starting point to think about how you may want to approach your work in this space.
PJP Safety Policy
Effective January 2022
We believe that people who are incarcerated should have an opportunity to tell their stories, that people should not be judged by the worst thing they’ve done and that people have an ability to change. However, we must also be cognizant that we do not know who most of our writers are, and we cannot know them just through their writing.
We also know a few things about their environment:
- They have been behind bars separated from society for years and sometimes decades.
- With the exception of a handful of prisons, they have had almost no contact with the outside world other than their family and perhaps a few friends.
- Many of them have been abandoned by friends and members of their family the moment they went to prison. Some of them have not received a single phone call, a visit or even a letter while behind bars.
- Many of them carry severe trauma that we cannot begin to imagine.
- Prison is a rough and highly stressful environment. They may have witnessed violence firsthand, they may have spent years in solitary confinement. They may be on death row.
All of this trauma means that some people may have difficulty understanding boundaries and will misinterpret a professional relationship. Each of us must protect our personal safety at all times even as we appreciate our writers and their work.
PJP has created a process and an organization for everyone to work safely. We rely on a third party mail service to receive submissions and other mail from our writers. We have a business address in Chicago and an academic address at Penn State for other mailing needs. We have a PJP account for JPay and GTL. We have generic email addresses to receive emails.
Additionally, we implement the following rules:
- Correspondence with prospective and regular writers must be signed off as PJP Editorial Team, PJP J-School Team and PJP Community Team. Staff should not use their names.
- For correspondence with PJP contributing writers and other long-time writers, staff can always default to the team sign offs and are encouraged to do so, but they may also consult the Green list of approved writers who can receive personalized messages.
- PJP J-School faculty will use their first names or pseudonyms in correspondence with students.
- All electronic correspondence (JPay, CorrLinks, Connect Network) with incarcerated writers must go through the official PJP accounts even if an incarcerated writer asks you to create a personal account to correspond with them individually.
- All general e-mail correspondences should be sent from <email@example.com> via Gmail.
- Writers should be addressed with their FULL NAME (PREFERRED NAME if different) unless they are on the Green List.
- The Community Manager will manage the official PJP phone number. If other staff need to connect with a writer via phone, you must coordinate with the Community Manager, so they can forward the PJP number to you.
- No staff or volunteers should be receiving personal phone calls from incarcerated individuals. If someone attempts to contact you, alert the Executive Directors immediately.
- The tone of your communication should be cordial and respectful, but not overly-friendly or familiar. Err on the side of formal, not less. Keep in mind that incarcerated individuals can be lonely and can easily misinterpret friendliness as something more.
- If a writer expresses a complaint or accusation, do not respond. Forward the communication to the Community Manager and Executive Directors. If you are uncomfortable with any communication regardless of reason or the writer’s intent, notify the Community Manager and Executive Directors immediately.
- Writers, who are inappropriate in their communications, will be suspended or expelled. This includes writers who are disrespectful, belligerent, accusatory, manipulative or repetitive in personal requests. Bottom line: If something makes you uncomfortable, it is inappropriate.
- All outgoing electronic and physical mail must be accompanied by a version of the following disclaimer.
Disclaimer: We are a small organization with a small team of mostly volunteers. We will respond to inquiries and requests as soon as we can, but please know that it sometimes takes us X weeks or more to respond. PJP is an organization that trains incarcerated writers in journalism and publishes their stories. We cannot respond to personal requests or matters outside of our mission. If you are inquiring about a submission, we are backlogged and running X weeks behind schedule. We do not review or publish book manuscripts or lengthy articles. We also cannot review your entire body of work. We consider timely and relevant stories one at a time. Thank you for your understanding and patience.