How are prisons in Canada

A look across the pond from American and Canadian prison newspapers

The San Quentin Prison is the oldest prison in California. This prison's prison newspaper, the San Quentin News, is one of the major publications for and by inmates in the state of California. It employs between 12-15 prisoners and is supported in production by seven professional advisors and a handful of volunteers. The monthly issue is distributed to an estimated 4,000 prisoners in San Quentin, as well as prison staff, volunteers and visitors.

Not only is the San Quentin News read by inmates in San Quentin, another 18,000 issues are delivered to 35 prisons across California. The newspaper owes its reach to substantial donations from the Columbia Foundation in 2013, which made it possible to bring the prison newspaper closer to so many people.

Another American prison newspaper is Prison Legal News (PLN). It is produced in Lake Worth, Florida and has been published regularly since May 1990. The PLN is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center and is a monthly 72-page magazine. The main person responsible is Paul Wright, his editorial team also consists of inmates or former inmates.

The newspaper is subscribed to by both inmates and people outside the prison walls. Between 65 and 70 percent of the subscribers are prisoners, the rest are lawyers, journalists, academics, libraries and activists who stand up for people behind bars.

The Journal of Prisoners on Prisons (JPP), based in Ottawa, Canada, was founded 25 years ago in the United States' northern neighbor. This publication is a non-profit newspaper with an academic orientation, written by inmates. The mission of the JPP is to give inmates a platform that enables them to speak and write about their experiences.

According to the JPP website, the editors want to create a discourse in which the administration of the prisons and the inmates can exchange ideas. It also aims to bring the reality of prisons closer to the public.

Prison newspapers as the main source of information

Kevin D. Sawyer, one of the co-editors of the San Quentin News, confirms in an interview how important these newspapers are for prisoners. He emphasizes that the relevance of a prison newspaper lies above all in the fact that this type of publication gives inmates a voice and provides them with information that they would otherwise not get in prison. He also criticizes the mainstream media for reporting crimes in an emotional and exaggerated way in order to boost sales.

In contrast, editors in prisons avoid this type of reporting. "We understand the dynamics and structure of prison culture better than any journalist who has never served time in prison." Sawyer also points out that journalists operating outside a prison are dependent on press releases from the prison administration, but detainees have the opportunity to write about events as they happen.

Paul Wright also agrees. He explains that "with 2.5 million prisoners in the US alone, there is a great deal of news that other media would not report without a prison newspaper."

The focus of the San Quentin News is on information to help inmates guide their lives on the right track. The three main themes are detention, rehabilitation and re-entry into society. To achieve this goal, the San Quentin News reports on programs and other opportunities for inmates to work on themselves and thus reintegrate more easily into society.

The San Quentin News also focuses on reducing the recidivism rate and increasing public safety. Prison Legal News takes a similar approach. The editors deal with all topics related to prisons, prison conditions, crimes and laws.

Health in prisons and the treatment of mental illnesses are also addressed in the PLN. Wright particularly criticizes the handling of mentally ill people in American prisons. "Detainees with mental illness are either ignored and not given any care, or given inappropriate and sometimes cruel treatment that makes their illness worse." The PLN regularly reports on these abuses in American prisons.

Prison Newspapers and the Censorship Problem

When sensitive issues such as violence in prisons, the treatment of mentally ill people and prison conditions are covered, the issue of censorship of prison newspapers regularly comes into play. Kevin D. Sawyer explains that in his experience, censorship of prison newspapers is only necessary when the safety of inmates, staff, volunteers and visitors is at risk.

“Irresponsible journalism can have far-reaching and deadly consequences. For example, we would never report a riot between two rival gangs. We print 30,000 newspapers that are distributed to 35 California prisons and we don't want other inmates to be piqued by such reports. Even if it sounds strange, self-censorship is necessary on certain topics when the security of prisoners is at risk. "

Paul Wright rejects any censorship of the Prison Legal News. "We have always reported on the news that are relevant and the facts that are necessary to understand what is happening". Articles in the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons go through various stages of control before they appear.

First, the manuscript is read through for the first time to determine whether the article is suitable for the prison newspaper. If this is the case, the author will be informed and the article will be read and edited by several editors. [The editorial staff attaches great importance to the independence of the JPP and thus enables the imprisoned editors to write articles without fear of censorship.

According to its website, the JPP shows that “the reports and representations of prison experiences and prison culture differ significantly from those found in most academic papers, government reports, scientific documents, the mass media and associated public discourse. "

Rehabilitation in prisons

In addition to the prison newspaper as a source of information, an important goal for the editors of these three prison newspapers is the rehabilitation of prisoners. Sawyer emphasizes that the San Quentin State Prison is one of the model prisons when it comes to rehabilitation of inmates.

There are more than 80 self-help programs, and one can also catch up with a college degree or vocational training. There are also programs that prepare people for re-entry into society. Paul Wright, editor at Prison Legal News and director of the Florida Human Rights Defense Center, disagrees.

He criticizes the fact that everything is generally tried to make it impossible for American inmates to reintegrate successfully into society after their release.

“It already starts with the imprisonment, then they are taken to prisons far from home and have draconian and limited visiting hours. The remote prisons, coupled with very expensive calls from the prison, contribute to the fact that the relapse rate is very high. "

Statistics from Florida authorities show that an average of 25% of ex-inmates relapse within three years. Issues like these highlight the importance of prison newspapers denouncing current prison abuses. Almost 130 years ago, the need for publications on prison life was recognized, which ultimately led to the establishment of the first American prison newspaper.

Jesse James and the making of the first American prison newspaper

Historically, prison newspapers have been relevant in the United States since the 19th century. The number of these newspapers fluctuated regularly. As The National reports, there were 250 prison newspapers in the states in 1959, compared with around a dozen today.

Hardly anyone would have suspected that after a failed robbery by the notorious James Young Gang in 1876, the very first and to this day longest published prison newspaper in the USA, the Prison Mirror, would appear. While Jesse James and his brother escaped after the failed attack, the three Young brothers were arrested and sentenced.

As reported by, the brothers and a fellow inmate founded the first American prison newspaper, the Prison Mirror, in 1887 after ten years in prison and many months in which they had to convince the prison guards. It is still not clear what the original motivation behind the establishment of the company was. It is believed that the founding was inspired by the movement for the reformation of prisons that was taking place at the time.

Conclusion and outlook

In addition to the San Quentin News, the Prison Legal News and the Journal of Prisoners on Prisons, the Prison Mirror is still an important pillar of life in prison today, over 130 years after it was founded.

All of these publications aim to give inmates a voice, to provide them with valuable information and to give the public a realistic insight into life behind bars.

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