Prison Journalism Navigator

Safety of Writers

When working with incarcerated writers and journalists, their safety is of paramount importance. Prison Journalism Project staff understands the power of journalism to hold authorities to account, to expose wrongdoing, and to positively impact the lives of the powerless. But we also understand that conducting journalism inside institutions designed to limit freedoms could negatively impact incarcerated writers, who are vulnerable to reprisal.

Prison Journalism Project continually updates and revises its policies, training programs, protocols and processes to ensure our staff considers all potential ramifications of working with individual incarcerated writers in pursuing any stories. We will not take away the agency of writers, who are fully aware of the risks, to make their own decisions about a story they want to publish, but we do not believe in sacrificing writers to shed light, no matter how important the story is. The pursuit of lasting institutional change will not be achieved if our work ultimately leads prisons and departments of corrections to shut down journalistic pursuits.

That is why Prison Journalism Project is declaring these 10 principals as the foundation of our work, and mandates their use in the practice of any and all facets of prison journalism.

  1. Never forget that your contact inside is not free. At the end of the day, they do not have the rights or the protections that journalists have outside. They may technically have First Amendment rights, and they may technically have the right to express themselves, but they are at the mercy of the corrections officers, the prison administration and the system. If somebody does not like what they are doing, there are lots of little ways that their lives can be made difficult. A journalist outside is never apprehended by police for writing a story, but inside prison, writers have been pulled in by investigators (i.e. prison police) who question them about their stories and sources.
  1. Consider all of the ramifications of running a story, not just from authorities but from other incarcerated people. A story about prison gangs, for example, could land a writer in serious trouble with a peer. Given the extreme sensitivities around race inside prisons, be particularly careful about stories with a racial element. For example, it may not be a good idea to ask a White writer to write about tensions in another ethnic community or vice versa. 
  1. Be particularly careful with investigative stories. We reporters on the outside might feel a strong mission to expose wrongdoing, but when you are working with a writer inside, keep in mind that there are lots of ways they can suffer the consequences of a story that upsets an administration. We’ve known cases where a writer’s mail is withheld or they lose visitation privileges. They might be written up for a contrived infraction. Solitary confinement is bad, but an even worse consequence is arguably the impact that a story could have on an individual’s chances for parole. A writer could also get transferred to a different prison, pulling them away from their established community and programming opportunities. 

    We know writers who are willing to take risks for the sake of the story, but it is the more experienced outside journalist’s responsibility to make sure that their incarcerated collaborator is fully aware of the potential ramifications (see #5). They cannot give informed consent if they aren’t informed. 
  1. Every prison is different. This may seem obvious, but it bears pointing out because there are a tiny handful of prisons in the country where journalism is thriving. If your first interaction is with someone there, you may assume that other prisons are just as open. They are not. Even in the more open prisons, there is likely a line that they do not want crossed. If you’re going to intentionally push against it, do it with care. 
  1. Do no harm: If you are collaborating with someone inside, PJP believes the outside journalist has a responsibility to conduct themselves, so they are not endangering them needlessly (and certainly without their informed consent). 
  1. Be careful of openly declaring your journalistic collaborations or your related actions: Transparency may be a core tenet of journalism, but don’t forget that most law enforcement agencies do not trust journalists or journalism. They know that their prisons have lots of problems, and many of them don’t like people inside to have a platform to speak out. (We at PJP believe that journalistic transparency is positive for all sides, and journalism done with integrity is not as scary as they think it is, but that is something that will take time.)

    Be aware that when you seek a prison’s explicit permission to do journalism with a writer inside, you may be shut down, you may be denied permission to communicate with the person, and that person may be closely monitored and restricted from doing any kind of writing in the future. If you feel you have to seek permission with authorities, consult your collaborator inside, be sure they are fully aware of the implications and give them the option to not move forward with your collaborative project if they are not ready to accept possible consequences. 
  1. Be careful of how you interact with departments of corrections and prison public information officers: No matter how friendly your relationship might feel, the public information officer is still law enforcement, and they are part of a clearly laid out chain of command with severe consequences for deviating from it. Be careful of inadvertently disclosing information about your inside contacts because they have a legal obligation to act if a law, rule or protocol is violated. 
  1. Be aware of how you interact with incarcerated writers. Workplaces in the outside world tend to be casual and familiar, but we have learned firsthand how this level of familiarity can get misinterpreted as a gesture of personal interest that may go above and beyond the professional relationship. Their feelings can get hurt if you don’t respond right away, or if you cannot help them with a personal favor. Our formerly incarcerated and incarcerated friends have explained to us that relationships inside prison tend to be formal, and most of them don’t understand how professional relationships work outside. They have advised us to maintain a formal arms-length relationship unless we really get to know them. At PJP, we address our writers initially by their preferred full names or surnames (e.g. Ms. Smith), and we keep our contact to professional phone numbers and email accounts. (See Safety of Staff for more)
  1. Read between the lines and get comfortable in the gray zone. If you force an answer, assume it will be no: You may encounter a public information officer or other prison administrator who respects and values journalism even when it’s conducted inside their facilities. They may convey their tacit approval in the subtlest way possible because they are not authorized to do so. For example, they may choose not to respond to an email you sent them seeking approval for something because it allows them plausible deniability. If you push them to articulate a clear position, the answer will almost certainly be unfavorable to you, your collaborator, your organization and potentially to everyone else working in this space. 
  1. Don’t forget that we’re all in this together: there are likely multiple organizations and individuals working with people inside the prison where your contact resides. They may be educators, advocates, and volunteer programs in addition to journalists and writers. The ones who have been there the longest are probably the ones who painstakingly developed a relationship of trust with the prison administrators, paving the way for the rest of us to come in. Be mindful that each of us represents all of us as a group. One infraction (perceived or actual) could lead to a policy decision that impacts everyone.

Furthermore, remember that relationships with departments of corrections and prison administrations are often tenuous. Especially if another organization is facilitating your entry into a prison or helping in some way, don’t divulge the content of your discussions with anyone without their permission. If they have an official contract, they may be legally subject to rules that you are not aware of. They may not know to ask for a conversation to be off the record, but treat them all as off the record unless it’s expressly communicated otherwise. The consequences of an inadvertent disclosure could be disastrous for an individual or an organization.