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From Behind Enemy Lines, Prison Journalists Report On Conditions At Their Own Risk

This article was funded by the Marvel Cooke Fellowship. Read more about this reporting project and make a contribution to fund our fellowship budget.

Those who are brave enough to practice journalism in prison often encounter the most aggressive intimidation and retaliation from prison administrators and guards.

Closely monitored telephone calls and messages. “Lost” and delayed mail. Random transfers. Contaminated food. Withheld healthcare. Frequent cell searches, with belongings shuffled through and thrown around; papers torn up and left in the toilet. A stint in solitary confinement, that might last a month or never-ending years. Directives and rules that target you, increasing your risk for a repeat of all the punishments above.

Prisoners have endured mental, emotional and physical abuse for centuries by those entrusted to watch over them. Those who push back are often singled out and made an example. It’s less known that these punishments are often wielded to their highest degree against prison journalists in an attempt to silence their voices, halt their writing, and further criminalize them for publishing work and accepting compensation. 

Incarcerated writers fight to share the truth of their experiences in environments often shrouded in extreme secrecy. In recent years, the number of inside journalists has increased, as has the number of investigations into topics like exposing harmful covid policies, inhumane conditions during the recent heatwave, and administrative tampering with legal mail.  

Even as more outside readers are exposed to this work, few understand the risk incarcerated journalists take to educate society on what happens behind those towering walls and razor wire fences. Writers are routinely targeted and attacked for their work countering ignorance and mythology to surface the real violent structure of the carceral system. 

Prison journalism spilled into public conversation in June, when New York Focus exposed a policy passed in May effectively banning incarcerated writers and artists in the state from freely publishing their work without administrative approval. New York rescinded the ban one day after the story sparked a public backlash. Those two intense days revealed that, as public support for prison journalism grows, Departments of Corrections will look for new ways to restrict and punish people who document prison life. 

As members of Empowerment Avenue, a collective that supports incarcerated writers and artists in publishing and getting compensated for their work, we have witnessed this firsthand since we began working together in 2020. In that moment, the COVID-19 pandemic was tearing through the U.S. prison system and incarcerated journalists exposed conditions and mistreatment such as transfers of sick people and overcrowding, using solitary confinement as medical quarantine, and inadequate medical care.

We spoke with several incarcerated journalists in state prisons across the country to understand the hurdles, oppression, and retaliation they face as they struggle to be published in mainstream media. It is because of their bravery that society is able to see what happens inside prisons. Yet, they are rarely recognized and almost entirely legally unprotected for the exceptional and risky work in which they are engaged. 

Mini fiefdoms

People often assume that prisons across the country operate more-or-less the same, with similar rules, methods of communication to the outside world, and living conditions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Corrections departments are not uniform and individual prisons operate without accountability or enforced oversight. As a result, prisons more closely resemble mini fiefdoms with distinct staff cultures and varying levels of inhumane conditions. 

Attitudes and restrictions around prison journalism vary widely as well. As the Prison Policy Initiative noted in a study published in June, “While explicit bans on prison journalism are rare, a web of complex and vague policies make the practice extremely difficult and sometimes risky.” 

Juan Moreno Haines is a longtime staff writer for the San Quentin News, who now freelances and works as a senior contributing writer and editor at Solitary Watch. “At San Quentin, I have an advantage over a lot of writers because the administration, from Sacramento down, are very supportive of San Quentin News and the writing they do,” he said. 

Publications like the San Quentin News, a prison newspaper founded in 1940, can create a culture for journalism and somewhat warm a Department of Corrections to the idea of incarcerated people writing about their conditions. These papers and newsletters, produced with state oversight, have varying degrees of press freedom from the prison administration. 

But even rare exceptions to draconian censorship, like San Quentin News, face significant limitations at the hands of prison officials. Prison publications can serve as “good PR,” obfuscating rather than exposing oppressive prison conditions. And as Wilbert Rideau, the former editor of the prison newspaper The Angolite, detailed in his memoir, the administration ultimately holds editorial control. Currently, no state-approved newspaper or newsletter encourages its writers to publish hard-hitting, investigative reporting to expose the system they’re living under. Once writers decide to produce that work, they can face a range of punishments that vary depending on the facility, staff, and state, as well as the identity of the writer.  

John J. Lennon, an accomplished journalist in New York, argues that retaliation can feel like it comes completely at random. “I don’t think I see writing and publishing as a risk, and I don’t expect to be, nor am I retaliated against by my jailers all the time,” he told Shadowproof. “I don’t think it’s a top-down thing. I think a mid-level security officer will read something he doesn’t like and set something in motion.” 

Lennon is most bothered by the retaliation faced by the subjects of his reporting. In a New York Times opinion piece calling President Biden to back prison reforms, he described a scene in which a guard had yelled out, so everyone in the cell block could hear, that a particular incarcerated person had a sex crime. After the piece published, he witnessed a targeted attack: 

“[He got] attacked from behind and brutally beat by another prisoner … The guard at the desk leisurely strolled over to the fight. The misbehavior reports that were subsequently written had him as the aggressor. At the hearing, he was punished more than the man who pummeled him. It was all set up, and it made me mad.” 

Sara Kielly, a trans journalist and jailhouse lawyer who is also incarcerated in New York, has experienced “a myriad of intimidation and retaliatory actions.” Some could be considered minor — like the mailroom denying her package of typing paper, which she needs to produce work — but others have been horrifying. She has been threatened with physical violence, sexual assault, and rape.

Kwaneta Harris, an incarcerated writer in Texas who has been held in solitary confinement for over seven years, faces distinct pressure in a Republican state actively passing censorship laws. Prior to the pandemic, the only media allowed at Harris’ solitary confinement unit was one hour of Fox News television per day. 

“They put me in exile,” she said of her long-term stay in solitary. At this specific prison, in a majority-white town where many correctional officers and administration are related, she faces a complex web of risks including intimidation by staff, frequent cell searches, mail and package tampering, and contaminated food. 

“The inmate janitors who pass out trays will tell me not to eat certain food because someone doesn’t like me,” she said. She’s even been punished for talking about abortion and sexual health. 

In Washington State, Jessica Sylvia (who is now out of prison, and has written for this publication) faced punishment for both her activism and writing related to her health needs as a trans woman. “The major, the worst thing, was that I repeatedly had my healthcare withheld for me,” she explained. “The staff knew how important that healthcare is and that interrupting it would harm me; it would be devastating.” 

Certain punishment

While no journalist faces the exact same punishment as another, there are common tactics we have seen used across a number of states: staff threats, cell searches, and frequent and random transfers to other facilities.  

“I’ve had my cell ‘searched’ and left looking as if a tornado tore through it multiple times a day or several days in a row; I’ve had my papers and family photos ripped up and/or thrown into the toilet; I’ve been transferred to segregated confinement with no access to pen or paper without cause,” Kielly said. “I’ve been given false disciplinary infractions with sanctions ranging from loss of commissary, loss of phone privileges, confinement to my cell with no programming.” 

Lennon said that, “A guard will flip my cell. I’ll receive a frivolous misbehavior report. My mail will be scrutinized and delayed. I’ve had eerie messages delivered to me from sort of trustee prisoners who work for guards, and they’ll tell me to watch my back or whatever—that I pissed off the guards.”

Cell searches, used against all incarcerated people, can be devastating for a prison journalist without access to a computer. Books, research materials, drafts, and notes will disappear, and no one is held accountable, leaving prisoners to pick up the pieces. Sometimes that means having new material mailed in; other times, it means completely starting over from scratch. 

“Beyond being invasive and disruptive, it’s [the administration] invading your space, showing that they can do whatever they want to you in this personal space,” Sylvia said.  “I remember finding something destroyed in a wet sink.” 

Harris, in Texas, found that books by Black authors triggered cell searches. Now she covers them with book jackets by white authors. “I don’t keep personal things in my cell,” she adds. 

Tablets, which usually have some form of paid e-messaging app installed, provide some relief and a faster way to communicate with outside supporters. These are small tablets that leave prisoners to type out articles with the taps of their thumbs much like texting on a cell phone. There are no keyboards or mice, and they lack the ability to use basic tools like cut and paste. But every message is monitored and can be blocked or delayed for months or weeks. California prisoners recently gained access to the e-messaging system GettingOut, but restrictive word bans (including the word “piece,” often used between fellow journalists) cause messages to get stuck as “pending.” 

Transfers as punishment hold extra weight for journalists. Being transferred from prison to prison, never allowed to settle in one place, leaves people unbalanced and strains their support networks. They limit their ability to develop trusted sources, and force them to spend time and energy in survival mode. It is difficult to share one’s experiences when they are struggling the hardest to survive them.

Transfers into solitary confinement are one of the most extreme ways DOC’s attempt to break spirits, stripping people from access to society and nearly any form of human contact. The mental and physical torture of solitary confinement is enough to dissuade many people from practicing journalism and breaking the rules. But some refuse to back down. “I’m in jail, inside of jail,” explains Harris, who has been in solitary for 7½ years. When it comes to retaliation, she feels, “They’ve done everything they can to me.” 

Criminalized compensation

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Fourteen states prohibit imprisoned people from operating or engaging in a business, including being self employed, and from receiving compensation for their work.” But forgoing compensation might not protect an incarcerated journalist, as “vague restrictions on ‘business activities’ are enough to threaten their work with media outlets.” 

Empowerment Avenue is committed to advocating for fair compensation for the creative work of incarcerated people, a population that makes pennies on the hour through prison labor. In pursuing this goal we’ve faced constant hurdles: DOC rules against payment, publications that are afraid to break any rules and are unequipped to transcend red tape and pay marginalized contributors, and deeply-held beliefs — from prison officials to editors — that incarcerated individuals do not need money or do not deserve to be compensated for their creative and journalistic work. 

“I really do believe that some of these guards and prison officials show a level of jealousy. They see an incarcerated person publishing and doing well and they don’t like it,” Sylvia explained. “There exists this respectability politics and this idea that people who are incarcerated don’t deserve anything.”  

In spite of the hurdles, Empowerment Avenue has worked directly with at least 50 incarcerated writers to figure out safe methods of payment regardless of their location or circumstance, such as making arrangements with outside loved one or power of attorney. 

While we’re declining to quote any currently-incarcerated writers about the impact of being paid, we can say with confidence that earning an income while incarcerated has tremendous, often life-changing, benefits. “People are often surprised to hear that nothing is really given to people in prison but a hard place to sleep and a little bad food,” Sylvia said. 

People can take better care of themselves when they have money, buying food and hygiene products. They can support the families they have left behind, contributing to rent, bills and items for their children. They can help pay for the exorbitant communication costs that often burden families with a loved one inside. They can pay for legal resources to get out of prison and save funds for their release. All of this allows them to support the their families and a smoother release back into society. 

“For me personally, as a trans woman, it was very difficult to get a job in prison,” Sylvia said. “I have to pay for all of these things and there are people who would love to force me into sex work. I resist stereotypes and want something different for myself.” She was able to save while inside, so “that when I was released I had more than the forty dollars and a bus ticket that the state issued.” 


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Credulous editors, prison minimizers

The challenges don’t stop once an incarcerated journalist has had their story green-lit by a publication. Like the police, Departments of Corrections typically enjoy significant narrative control and editorial capture in the mainstream media. Additionally, many news outlets’ distrust and hold significant biases against incarcerated journalists, often demanding higher and often unachievable standards of evidence than what other journalists might face. 

Incarcerated journalists understand the importance of fact checking; they go through great lengths to document and report carefully, represent their sources accurately, and collect paperwork and evidence as it’s available. But it’s rarely acknowledged that they’re up against the Department of Corrections “machine,” which has mastered the skill of silencing, discrediting, lying about, and harming those who boldly stand against their draconian ways. Then there’s a mainstream media that is far from objective, propping up police narratives and pushing “tough-on-crime” agendas, rife with misinformation and racism. Editors and publishers within this system often approach incarcerated reporters with a level of suspicion no other journalist would face. 

As a result, incarcerated journalists are pressed to prove every claim while Departments of Correction are allowed to make claims freely without ever being asked to show evidence. 

“There’s this strong distrust, this feeling that we’re all liars,” Harris said not just of DOC officials, but of outside journalists and editors who contact her. “I can prove these things. I have grievances, I have paperwork, I can send you all that. I’m telling you the truth.” 

Kielly added that, “When we do finally find an entity willing to publish our pieces, our stories are published in a manner that discredits or demeans the lives of incarcerated individuals or us as a writer.” 

Sylvia spoke of struggling to overcome these credibility issues. “People don’t feel like someone who is incarcerated can actually write a credible, truthful story and it’ll be as good as someone not incarcerated.” 

We’ve seen editors — particularly at legacy publications — pressure writers about their conviction, insert dehumanizing language into their work, and challenge journalists about details of their reporting that surprise the outside journalists who support them, and who haven’t faced that level of scrutiny in their own reporting. 

In a more just world, the common journalistic practice to seek comments from “both sides” can make sense. But in this world, the media’s reverence for law enforcement permits severe journalistic malpractice. Credulously seeking comments, explanations, and fact checks from the Department of Corrections can easily become harmful and result in publishing lies that bolster the system the reporter attempts to expose. 

One jarring example comes from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s communication department, which regularly states “there are 30 females in security detention [solitary confinement] throughout the state, less than 0.02% of the overall population.”  

“There are 228 people in my unit,” explains Harris, “And every one of them is experiencing solitary confinement.” TDCJ classifies people in her unit in various ways to manipulate the data and undercount the solitary population. This means that Harris is up against a lie about the very population she is a part of. 

These DOC lies play out on the published page. A story by Harris details the lack of educational materials in solitary confinement. The end of her piece includes a long comment from the Texas Department of Justice on how that isn’t true. 

This piece reported by Chris (the co-author of this story) detailed a deadly breakdown of government policy during COVID-19. The editor inserted DOC responses — many of them directly refuting his reporting — throughout the published piece. The first editorial comment includes the statement: “The author stands by this account of his experience.” To any outside journalist, an editorial statement like that, preceding their reporting, would be unthinkable.

Sharing the risks

Make no mistake: incarcerated journalists are reporting from behind enemy lines. And yet none of the reporters we surveyed felt the risks they’ve taken are fully recognized or appreciated by their peers in journalism or their readers. 

“Absolutely not,” were direct quotes from both Harris and Haines when asked about this point. 

“Incarcerated journalists are not given recognition for the risks we take in writing and breaking stories,” Kielly echoed. “Where are the Pulitzer Prize nominations for incarcerated journalists who write explosive exposés … [while breaking] stories on issues that no one else has the courage or ability to cover? Where are the awards and equitable royalties?”

“Incarcerated writers, and particularly those of us who are journalists are treated as publishable sideshows and the bastard redheaded stepchildren of the industry,” Kielly said. “We’re token pieces to publish rather than seen as hard-hitting [investigative journalists].”

Recognition, agency, leadership, and meaningful opportunities in the media industry are sorely needed. More urgently, what legal support will writers and jailhouse lawyers get if Departments of Correction ramp up their oppressive and retaliatory tactics? Will incarcerated journalists be offered the same legal protections as journalists in the free world, or will they be expected to fend for themselves? 

Unless there is a break with history, many inside journalists feel it will be the latter. We were recently disappointed to see an incarcerated writer start writing for a major publication, one with significant resources at its disposal, only to be discouraged by the editors from writing anything that would need fact checking and could put the publication at legal risk with the DOC.

“I really believe legal support would have made a difference,” Sylvia said about losing her healthcare access in the midst of her writing and organizing efforts inside. 

“I have yet to see an incarcerated journalist’s freedom of speech rights defended by a major publisher or newspaper,” Kielly said. “Not until publishers, literary agents, and entertainment/literary lawyers begin defending incarcerated journalists’ First Amendment rights as vehemently as they do free world writers will any change come to fruition.”

Legal challenges can make a difference. Haines pointed to the case of Boston Woodard, whose legal team successfully sued the California department of corrections after they put him in solitary confinement for his journalism. “I really think he set the stage for incarcerated writers in California and to protect them from retaliation,” he says. 

Prisons have so many policy tools at their disposal to punish journalism that more legal and public support is desperately needed on all fronts. According to the Prison Policy Initiative:

  • 46 states have censored correspondence with news media (meaning incarcerated journalist are not able to protect their sources, whom are often other prisoners, leaving them to risk everything to speak towards the injustices they experience at the hands of their oppressors); 
  • 14 states have a total ban on business and compensation (meaning incarcerated journalist cannot sign a contract with publishers or receive payment for their work); 
  • 19 states have a partial ban on business and compensation (meaning incarcerated journalist could be limited — causing a gray area — on the kind of contracts they sign or the compensation they receive); 
  • and the Federal Bureau of Prisons explicitly forbids any incarcerated individual from acting as a journalist at all — a clear violation of a U.S. citizen’s First Amendment rights.

Our hope is that the public backlash that emerged against New York’s May directive is not a one-time phenomenon but a sign of greater recognition and solidarity taking hold. And more importantly, that publications and legal organizations, who have the ability to offer support, will step up and join the fight in protecting incarcerated voices from being suppressed. These questions have yet to be answered — but we know that the incarcerated journalists, their families, and grassroots organizations who support them cannot hold the line alone forever. 

Defending years of sacrifice

We asked the journalists a final question: Is the risk you take worth it?

“Is it worth it? Hell yeah!” said Lennon. “I risked my life when I was a drug dealer on the street. Everyday I could have been robbed or killed or arrested. And for what? To me, this idea of being a journalist is a higher calling. So, I mean, why not risk it all for this?”

“Oh yeah,” said Haines. “I do this because I want the public to understand that prisons aren’t a place to keep them safe — prisons are a result of failed policy, it holds all the failures of our society.” 

Incarcerated journalists are in a battle that will determine the future of the practice of journalism in prisons. At stake is whether they can continue to play a role as truth tellers of the conditions they endure every day. If the momentum of the work stalls, it could roll back what has been accomplished and years of sacrifices could have been for nothing. But lost progress will also mean years of rebuilding and continuing to fight. 

We are in a moment to finally solidify incarcerated journalists’ right to have access to their First Amendment rights and fair compensation. We are in a time where our refusal to let oppressed voices be shut down or suffer abuse for sharing the truth with society can be sustained.

“I am willing to suffer whatever crap they decide to do to me for writing, if it makes them tell the truth for once in their careers,” Kielly says. “I want people to know that this is happening,” says Harris.

Incarcerated journalists are willing to risk it all. What is society willing to risk to protect them?

Christopher Blackwell & Emily Nonko

Christopher Blackwell & Emily Nonko

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington state. He is a contributing writer at Jewish Currents and contributing editor at The Appeal and works closely with Empowerment Avenue. He co-founded the organization Look2Justice.

@ChrisWBlackwell on Twitter

Emily Nonko is a director and organizer for Empowerment Avenue Writing for Liberation, a collective that supports incarcerated writers pitching, publishing and getting paid for their work. She has been a freelance journalist for the past decade. She also co-edited The Press in Prison, published by Haymarket Books in 2021.

@emilynonko on Twitter
@empowermentave on Twitter
@empowermentave on Instagram