January 26, 2021

When journalist John J. Lennon got an idea for a book, he found an incarcerated person, who had only given a few interviews, trusted Lennon to tell his story. The reason? Lennon himself is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility in New York state.

“He knows I know his struggle, and he knows no journalist will treat him more fairly than me,” Lennon said.

Lennon, who has bylines in publications like The Guardian, The Washington Post and Vice, is an incarcerated journalist and an adviser of the Prison Journalism Project.

The Prison Journalism Project launched in 2020 by Shaheen Pasha,  a journalist and Pennsylvania State University assistant teaching professor, and Yukari Iwatani Kane, a journalist and adviser to The San Quentin News, a prison newspaper. The two met in August 2018 when Pasha visited The San Quentin News while on a Nieman fellowship to investigate how to create a curriculum to teach incarcerated people to become journalists. The News is one of the handful of prison newspapers left in the United States, down from an estimated 250 in the 1950s.

After their initial meeting, Kane and Pasha started to work on what would later become the Prison Journalism Project. The two began development on a textbook and journalism courses, but after the coronavirus started to have a devastating impact on prisons, Pasha and Kane recognized the acutely urgent need of sharing the voices of incarcerated people.

“We can’t go inside, but we want to make sure that men and women are not forgotten, so we launched this as an ad hoc Medium site in order to publish these stories,” Pasha said.

The Prison Journalism Project would quickly become its own site following a flood of submissions.

By the end of 2020, the Prison Journalism Project had more than 140 contributing writers across 28 states who submitted over 350 pieces, most of which are published. After handwritten articles are sent to the Prison Journalism Project, a team of volunteer transcribers and editors then prep articles for publication either on their website or at mainstream publications like the San Francisco Chronicle.

The mission of the Prison Journalism Project is to help incarcerated people share “stories that are never told and never seen because nobody gets in deep enough” into incarcerated issues, Kane said The two organizers share explainers on subjects like how ledes work with current contributors, as well as mailing them a copy of their stories.

These incarcerated journalists serve as correspondents in prisons, just like how Pasha and Kane were foreign correspondents themselves in the Middle East and Japan, respectively, Pasha said. As Pasha notes, the population of people in prison — 2.3 million — is bigger than in some countries where news outlets have correspondents.

Prison Journalism Project is open to any incarcerated person in the United States and those connected to incarceration — like their families or people who work in prisons. Patricia Elane Trimble, a trans activist, joined the Prison Journalism Project after previously working with Pasha, who edited a piece of hers for GEN. Trimble told Poynter that writing for publications that are read by nonincarcerated people allows her to advocate for systemic issues facing incarcerated people, like abuse and failure to meet the basic needs of trans incarcerated people.

“One universal truth is well known in prison: You can scream as loud as you want in the middle of the night, and no one will care,” Trimble said. “Your only hope is to reach outside of the system.”

Bill Keller, a former executive editor of The New York Times and founding editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, became an adviser to the Prison Journalism Project after Lennon, who he previously collaborated with on a  New York Magazine feature on Andrew Goldstein, approached him about it. Keller says that training incarcerated people to become journalists “in our interest to know what’s going on in” prisons during COVID-19, as incarcerated people still have access to sources in their communities during lockdowns.

Journalism skills can be helpful to incarcerated people as well. Marcus Henderson, who is incarcerated, the editor-in-chief of the San Quentin News and an editorial associate at the Prison Journalism Project, tells his peers that journalism is “good for rehabilitation.” He finds that writing about Indigenous people, women and other disadvantaged groups helps give them a voice in prison.

One of the many skills that Kane and Pasha hope to teach incarcerated people in how to interview. Contributors are taught to not “compromise on the core journalistic values in terms of accuracy in terms of independence and impartiality,” Kane said.

“We think we can still train our writers and all those journalistic principles, but they are not going to be coming from Columbia and Northwestern,” Kane said.

In the coming months, Kane and Pasha will officially launch the Prison Journalism Project J-School. Pasha said that she and Kane will be using different resources and exercises to train incarcerated people to become journalists virtually in Florida and Illinois.

“For us, it’s a way to kind of spread journalism around the country and facilities,” Pasha said.

The editorial team at Prison Journalism Project will also launch a section to spotlight the contributor who writes the best story of the week and give them a $50 honorarium. Work from the Prison Journalism Project is not currently widely available to incarcerated people, as the work lives on a website.

“So one of our goals this in 2021, is to be publishing a best-of anthology that’s a physical book that we could send inside,” Kane said.

Despite roadblocks, Prison Journalism Project contributors often speak about their appreciation for Pasha and Kane’s work, as well as how journalism has helped them. Henderson said that the articles he writes help him recognize that his voice matters.

“Guys in here read my article and say, ‘Man, you know I love that article, I kept it on my wall.’ It’s affecting me to do more.”

Correction: John J. Lennon is incarcerated at Sullivan Correctional Facility, not Sing Sing Correctional Facility. 

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Julia Métraux (she/her) is an independent reporter and current graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow her on Twitter at…
Julia Métraux

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