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Newspaper behind bars boasts compelling storytelling

SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — The scene was almost indistinguishable from that in any other newsroom. Editors sat around chatting about the next issue and tinkering with stories. Front pages were tacked up on the walls, and family photos were taped to computer terminals.

But in fact this newspaper office was unlike almost any other, obvious from the dress code: Staff members wore the standard blue uniform of California prison inmates.

When the phone rang, the answer was a crisp, "Hello, San Quentin News."

The newspaper — motto: "The Pulse of San Quentin" — is one of the country's only inmate-produced publications. Convicts write the articles and design the pages from behind the walls of the all-male lockup outside San Francisco that houses California's death row.

It's a community newspaper for a community of felons and the guards who keep them there. Articles mark officers' retirements, inmates' releases and the latest developments in the federal court battle over reducing California's swollen prison population.

A regular column highlights "an OG's perspective" — OG for "old guard," rather than the more common "original gangster." There are Sudoku puzzles, book reviews and recaps of prison-yard sports.

The paper typically has an aspirational tone, emphasizing uplifting stories about inmates improving their lives and taking advantage of education programs. Headlines refer to prisoners who "promise to work for peace" or go from "criminal life to positive futures."

Staffers say their work can induce soul-searching, that telling other people's stories helps them explore their own lives. And it can be a source of pride.

Rahsaan Thomas, a convicted killer, mailed his mother a copy of the October issue, where he appeared in a front-page photo of a basketball game.

"It was the first time I was in the paper and nobody got shot," said Thomas, 43, the sports editor.

Before they reached San Quentin, many of the editors' only brush with journalism was as subjects of articles about the crimes that put them behind bars. Each issue of the monthly San Quentin News is a reminder that their lives did not end when they were locked up.

The paper is distributed inside San Quentin and mailed to libraries at 16 other California prisons. And the editors have larger plans.

They're working with graduate students at Berkeley to expand the publication, hoping to increase circulation tenfold to at least 120,000 copies and distribute them in all of the state's 34 prisons.

"We have a vision," said Arnulfo Garcia, 61, the editor in chief. "Our dreams are big."

Their plan hinges on funding from foundations, individual donors and even some subscriptions. It could take more than a decade to reach fruition. But slow progress isn't an obstacle.

"We've got a lot of time," joked Managing Editor Juan Haines.

Haines, 56, is serving 55 years to life for bank robbery; Garcia's sentence is 65 years to life for burglary and skipping bail.

It's not just the criminal records that make the San Quentin News unconventional.

Staff members have an obvious stake in the topics they cover, although they strive for objectivity. And they lack true editorial freedom because of oversight and occasional censorship by prison officials.

They also have a captive audience. But roughly a third of California's inmates can't read above a sixth-grade level, according to state statistics.

A team of outside advisers, former reporters and editors from around the Bay Area, donate their time to help put out each issue.

The prison has had a newspaper on and off since at least 1930. When Robert Ayers became warden in 2006, the paper had been shut down since the early 1980s.

Ayers thought reviving it was a good idea at a time when California's prison system was facing enormous challenges. Inmate health care was being placed under federal control because of unconstitutionally poor care, and "there was all kinds of information, misinformation, rumor," he said.

A newspaper would provide "a vehicle for communicating to the inmate population," he decided, and the first issue of the rejuvenated San Quentin News appeared in June 2008.

Only a handful of such publications still come from behind prison walls, including the monthly Prison Mirror newspaper in Minnesota and the Angolite magazine in Louisiana, which is published six times a year.