Today’s Prison Press

At Prison Journalism Project, we are not alone in our efforts to train incarcerated writers in the tools of journalism and to publish their stories.

In fact, people inside U.S. prisons have been figuring out a way to run their own newsrooms since 1800.

Collectively known as the prison press, the efforts of incarcerated writers and editors have taken many forms over the years, from short, mimeographed newsletters to thick, glossy magazines. But they share a few common goals.

The prison press aims to provide reliable information as well as be a source of communication between prison administrations, the incarcerated population and the outside world. Often, the point of this communication is to improve conditions for people in prison. The 1887 inaugural issue of Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater’s The Prison Mirror — the first paper written and managed exclusively by incarcerated people — made this clear.

“The introduction of the prison press into the great penal institutions of our land is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform,” Lew P. Schoonmaker, who was the paper’s editor, wrote in the inaugural issue.

Where the Mirror led, many prisons followed. The first study on prison newspapers, conducted in 1935, reported that nearly half of U.S. prisons produced their own publications. The numbers hit an all-time high in 1959, with 250 prison papers appearing regularly nationwide.

Then things took a downward turn. When Russell N. Baird wrote the first book-length academic work on prison journalism, “The Penal Press,” in 1967, he referred to it as a “virtually forgotten branch of the fourth estate.” James McGrath Morris’ 1998 history “Jailhouse Journalism” contained a more dire diagnosis. With just six actively publishing newspapers listed in the book’s index, the prison press, he feared, was on its way to extinction.

It’s exciting news, then, that the numbers are on the rise. By our latest count in September, there were 20 operational, prisoner-run news publications at work across 10 states.

The goal of this section is to help audiences locate and read them. 

Among the subsections, you’ll find our prison newspaper directory, which lists details and contact information for currently operational prison publications. 

You’ll also find our “From Prison Newspapers” section, where we amplify the work of these organizations by republishing a selection of their stories.  Since many prison publications do not have an online presence, we’re excited to help them reach a wider outside audience. 

And for a closer look at what prison newspapers looked like in previous decades, check out Reveal Digital’s open-access archive “American Prison Newspapers, 1800-2022: Voices from the Inside.”

As this section grows, we hope to offer you more resources on the history of this remarkable part of the fourth estate.