Kate McQueen

571. Prison Newspaper Project shares the inside scoop from those inside

Prisons are, in essence, a different kind of small town or city. Instead of a local government, there are corrections officers, wardens and regulatory bodies at state and federal levels; there are important events happening that people want to know about and a need for information about what’s going on in the world. 

To help share the information, a handful of prisons continue the longstanding tradition of a newspaper written and produced by incarcerated people, a method of both self expression and a tool for keeping those living inside aware of what’s happening in their community. 

Kate McQueen is the editor of the Prison Newspaper Project, a venture of the Prison Journalism Project, and serves as managing editor for the organization’s instructional print newspaper that helps teach journalism skills to incarcerated people. 

“Our overarching goal as an organization is to train incarcerated writers in the tools of journalism and help publish stories,” she says. “We offer instruction through our J school; we have an online magazine and the print newspaper, where we publish their work, and we facilitate co-publishing opportunities with outside media organizations. The projects under my supervision are both specifically geared for inside audiences.” 

If the name sounds familiar, it should: Shaheen Pasha and Yukari Kane were previous guests on the podcast to talk about the Prison Journalism Project and how they created it. McQueen and Kane initially met when they were both working as editorial advisors for the San Quentin News, a paper based in the well-known California facility. 

“The Prison Journalism Project as a whole mostly works with writers who don’t have additional resources inside. They’re working independently, kind of like freelancers,” McQueen says. “People who work in prison newspapers, on a prison newspaper staff, they do have an inside network. They’re an institution in their own right. … We knew from the beginning we wanted to do outreach with prison newspapers. They’re kind of like our siblings.” 

The work done by prison newspapers is comparable to small town journalism in that the articles that appear there might not be available or of interest in larger, outside publications. 

“It’s an important source of information for that community. They do write for prison officials, for politicians at the state and local level and for people who live and work in proximity to the prison,” she says. “A lot of stories may focus on rehabilitation and reform. One we recently republished on our website is a piece from the San Quentin News from a recent visit a bunch of judges took to the prison. A whole cohort came inside, they had a tour of the facility which was run by people who are incarcerated there, and then they sat down together and had an opportunity to ask each other questions, like a panel. The reporter who wrote the piece was able to reproduce this dialogue to readers. It’s a unique situation anyway to have judges and people who were judged and sentenced to be in an informal space like that.” 

While there are fewer prisons newspapers now than in the past — there were 250 publications during the peak in 1959 but only about 25 now — those who have taken on the job of reporter for prison newspapers are well-respected and viewed as a kind of authority figure by their readers. 

“The reporters and editors, they’re not celebrities, but they are people who have a lot of authority inside. They’re not viewed with suspicion, they’re viewed as people who are doing important work,” McQueen says. “In some ways, I think they get more respect than journalism editors on the outside do.”

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