In 2008, California’s San Quentin prison revived the San Quentin News and produced 5,000 copies of a four-page-long newspaper the incarcerated staff distributed by hand to each cellblock. Despite being the nation’s most advanced prison newsroom, San Quentin’s media makers still do not have access to the internet. Inmates work with outside volunteers, many of them retired journalists, who help with research, training and editing. COVID-19 has posed an additional obstacle to newsroom operations. In mid-March, the virus caused the media lab to shutter, including the San Quentin News, Politico reports. “When you look at journalists out in the free world, you see they are deemed essential workers,” said Juan Moreno Haines, a longtime San Quentin News reporter. “But when you look at the power dynamic here, we’re not essential to the operation here.”
Journalists at San Quentin have put out stories that range from conditions in solitary housing units, suicide in prison, sex while incarcerated and men convicted of child abuse. Their work stops short of directly criticizing prison administration and avoids topics the administration might deem a threat to public safety, like prison gang violence. As skills have grown inside San Quentin’s media room, those restraints are a big reason why incarcerated journalists and their allies are increasingly looking to establish direct channels between prison writers and mainstream outlets to publish more high-impact work. Last year, Haines won a reporting grant as an independent journalist to report on the practice of placing sick prisoners in solitary housing units. His story was published in the criminal justice publication The Appeal. With the San Quentin News shut down indefinitely because of the coronavirus, Haines continues to write for The Appeal; one recent report detailed how prison overcrowding affects coronavirus shelter-in-place measures.