Temperature Check: COVID-19 Behind Bars

A responsive series from PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, featuring original creative reportage by incarcerated writers, accompanied by podcast interviews with criminal justice reform experts on the pandemic’s impact in United States’ prisons.

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Volume 12.0 Table of Contents

Introduction To Volume 12.0:
Prison Journalism in the Time of COVID-19

Dear Readers,

With over 2.3 million individuals behind bars—the population of a small country—and fewer than 10 internal publications, the United States’ incarceration system is an extreme information desert. Prison journalism, however, was not always this imperiled; during the 1950s, over 250 prison publications operated nationwide. The stark diminishment in journalism behind bars—a fall whose trend correlates with the rise of mass incarceration—can be directly attributed to exorbitant censorship, lack of internet access and educational resources, and hostile prison administrations.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated, journalism has been critical to raising awareness of and accountability for human rights abuses in correctional facilities. While COVID spread rapidly and visibly throughout the country, much about its impact in prisons, jails, and detention centers—preventable deaths, outsized infection rates, inaccessibility of PPE, extreme and inhumane lockdown measures—remained hidden from the public eye. While outside journalists faced opaque systems and barred access, the incarcerated reporters willing to risk the possibility of administrative retaliation often lacked inroads to an audience beyond the walls.

The few that broke through the censorship, however, proved instrumental in shaping public opinion and policy. For example, when Juan Moreno Haines, a writer for the San Quentin News—the only newsletter in the country fully operated by incarcerated writers—tested positive for COVID in May 2020, he was moved to solitary confinement to “socially distance.” Haines detailed his experience in a letter to The Appeal. Thanks to the work of Haines and other San Quentin journalists, public pressure pushed the California State Senate to investigate the outbreak.

The Prison Journalism Project (PJP) knows the impact of inside-out reporting well. Founded by journalists and educators Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha at the onset of COVID-19, PJP seeks to revegetate the carceral media desert from the inside out by providing incarcerated writers with the tools, training, and pathways to publication they need to establish themselves as credible journalists. Kane has spent the past few years teaching and advising at the San Quentin News; Pasha has launched various immersive and collaborative journalism courses behind bars.

In this issue, we proudly highlight PJP’s work, both in our dispatch section—which features articles published in their online publication—as well as on our Works of Justice Podcast. In the episode, we spoke with Kane and Pasha about establishing credible journalism behind bars and about how prison journalism enriches the conversation about criminal justice reform by actively centering currently incarcerated writers.

Thank you for engaging.

In gratitude,

Frances Keohane, PEN America
Prison and Justice Writing Fellow 2020

The PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Team:
Caits Meissner, Director
Robert Pollock, Manager
Mery Concepción, Volunteer Coordinator
Frances Keohane, 2020 Fellow
Alec Sandoval, Spring 2021 Intern

Dispatch From Inside

The selected articles featured in this dispatch section are published in the Prison Journalism Project‘s online publication. In style, content, and time of publication, the two pieces frame the course of the pandemic thus far.

The Hidden Heroes Forgotten Inside

The following piece is excerpted from an article written for the Prison Journalism Project by Steve Brooks, currently a contributing writer for the San Quentin News. “The Hidden Heroes Forgotten Inside,” penned in May 2020, exposes the often-forgotten toil of essential workers behind bars, whose overlooked heroism mirrors that of incarcerated journalists.

Steve Brooks headshot

Steve Brooks, a contributor to San Quentin News and Prison Journalism Project and author of “The Hidden Heroes Forgotten Inside”

I am a 48-year-old African American man with asthma confined in a California prison. Every day, while riots and unrest are happening in prisons around the world, I wake up at 3 am. I get dressed, I wash up, I put a mask over my face, I put on gloves, and I step out of my cell to go work in the main kitchen. Instead of sheltering in place, I go assist in preparing the morning meals for 3,600 other incarcerated people during this coronavirus pandemic.

I am housed in what can only be described as an incubator-under the worst-case scenario. I am a sitting duck waiting for coronavirus to be brought into this crowded prison, where I will likely be infected and possibly killed. Yet every day I still step out of my cell onto the frontlines of this pandemic; regardless of this unforeseen killer, regardless of the thousands who have been infected in prisons and almost 100 incarcerated men who are dead. I still step out of my cell and I take on the dangerous task of feeding the population so the guards can focus on maintaining safety and security. . .

There are incarcerated people who risk their lives every day to make sure that people get fed. We make sure the prison hospitals, kitchens, day rooms and showers are cleaned and sanitized. We make sure custody staff get their offices cleaned and paperwork filed on time. We prune the flowers, water the grass and trim the trees. We make sure that incarcerated people who are older and physically handicapped or hearing impaired receive care. We help mitigate this pandemic.


Breaking News: San Quentin Residents Mingle for the First Time in Over a Year

The following piece is excerpted from an article by Joe Garcia, a San Quentin News veteran who helped launch the Prison Journalism Project. He currently serves PJP in an advisory role as one of the two inside editorial associates.

Joe Garcia headshot

Joe Garcia, a San Quentin News veteran who helped launch the Prison Journalism Project

For the first time in almost 14 months, San Quentin State Prison’s main recreational yard opened to all residents from all housing units. It was the first time prisoners from different buildings were allowed to mingle freely.

“It’s wonderful to see everyone out there at the same time,” said Dion DeMerrill. “It’s been over a year.”


Works of Justice Podcast Interview

Journalists and Educators Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha on Prison Journalism

Works of Justice Podcast graphic with headshots of Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha

To learn more about the importance of prison journalism and the challenges of reporting from behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic, we spoke with Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha, co-founders and -executive directors of the Prison Journalism Project. In this episode, Kane and Pasha discuss the power of teaching journalism behind bars, particularly during a pandemic; the importance of integrating prison journalism into not only the larger field of journalism, but also broader conversations around criminal justice reform; the nuance of defining the genre of “prison journalism”; and the challenges of fact-checking, verification, and credibility in a space with limited access to the internet and outside sources.

LISTEN NOW (40 mins)

Read the transcript, or listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Advocacy, Action and Resource Round-Up


  • The Freedom Archives’ Prisons and Prison – Newspapers collections contain extensive historical resources from correctional facilities throughout the United States.

  • The Penal Press, a “primary source of prison history from within,” is written and produced by incarcerated writers.

  • San Quentin News, the only newspaper in prison fully operated by incarcerated individuals, is available online. Their mission is to report on “rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice.”

  • Listen to “Ear Hustle,” a Pulitzer-nominated podcast launched in 2017 to expose outside listeners to “the daily realities of life inside prison shared by those living it.” Co-founded by Nigel Poor, Earlonne Woods, and Antwan Williams, “Ear Hustle” was the first podcast created and produced in prison.

  • Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater’s newspaper, The Mirror, is the oldest continuously published prison newspaper in the country. Their first issue was released on August 10, 1887.

  • The Angolite, edited and published by incarcerated writers in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, has gained national attention and international recognition for its reporting expertise.