Works of Justice Podcast: Journalists and Educators Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha on Prison Journalism
With over 2.3 million individuals behind bars—the size of a small country—and fewer than 10 prison news publications, the United States’ incarceration system is an information desert.
Exorbitant censorship practices and lack of internet access constrict the free flow of information through the walls, leaving correctional facilities vulnerable to the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories—and without the power to attract public attention for human rights issues in prison. Furthermore, incarcerated writers often encounter significant roadblocks to developing their own internal news sources by and for people in the system.
The field of journalism is an endangered one, its decline only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID spread rapidly and devastatingly through the country, much about its course behind bars—deaths, infection rates, safety measures, etc.—was kept hidden from the public. The pandemic has emphasized the need for credible journalists in prison who can provide outside communities with news about what is happening behind bars. Prison journalism helps force accountability from the system itself.
Yukari Kane and Shaheen Pasha co-founded the Prison Journalism Project at the onset of the pandemic to help revegetate this carceral media desert from the inside out, providing incarcerated writers with the tools, training, and pathways to publication they need to establish themselves as credible journalists.
Both Pasha and Kane began their careers as journalists, eventually expanding into higher education. When they met, Kane was teaching at San Quentin News, the only newspaper in the country fully operated by incarcerated writers; Pasha had launched various immersive and collaborative journalism courses behind bars.
In this Works of Justice podcast interview, Pasha and Kane speak about their respective paths to co-founding the Prison Journalism Project at a critical moment in the COVID-19 crisis.
I’m Frances Keohane, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Fellow, and thank you for listening.
FRANCES KEOHANE: First, I just want to thank you both for taking the time to speak with me today. I’m really excited to hear about your work through and beyond the Prison Journalism Project. First, I just want to know if you can speak a bit about your respective paths to getting involved first in journalism, and then journalism behind bars, and eventually to founding the Prison Journalism Project.
SHAHEEN PASHA: I can go first. For me, I’ve wanted to be a journalist my whole life because I love telling stories. It was something that I had been planning for since I was five years old, to be. But when I started out my career, I started out in business journalism and legal news. So I covered a lot of court cases and corporate fraud, things like that; nothing really to do with criminal justice in the non-white collar sense. I worked for places like Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN.
Even though I covered these court cases and the Supreme Court, I actually really became involved in this world when it touched home. I became one of the millions of people who has a loved one who is incarcerated. In my case, it was my best friend who I grew up with, who I absolutely adore. He was arrested and ultimately convicted and incarcerated for 150 years inside New Jersey. That number, and just that reality, shifted everything for me. Because when I went to visit him inside the New Jersey State Prison for the first time, and those doors closed, I really realized this was a world I knew nothing about, and I think the vast majority of us know nothing about on the outside.
“I became one of the millions of people who has a loved one who is incarcerated. In my case, it was my best friend who I grew up with, who I absolutely adore. . . In talking to him, I realized just how many stories and how much potential there was behind bars that was hidden and untapped. I saw somebody that I cared about who’s just basically withering away, had been super smart, had a lot of ambition, and had absolutely nothing to do—very little programming. It just stuck with me.”
In talking to him, I realized just how many stories and how much potential there was behind bars that was hidden and untapped. I saw somebody that I cared about who’s just basically withering away, had been super smart, had a lot of ambition, and had absolutely nothing to do—very little programming. It just stuck with me.
I was a young reporter then, and there wasn’t much I felt like I could do about it, but it haunted me for many, many years. Even though I continued as a journalist and I became foreign correspondent, when I switched into full-time academia, I became a professor of journalism. It was the first time I actually had the ability to do something about this thing that had bothered me for a long time.
So I started volunteering inside of a local jail. When I went to that local jail and asked them, “Hey, can I volunteer?,” they were really excited about it. They said, “Of course, we would love to have you come teach. What do you want to teach?”
I said “journalism,” and everything shut down. It was an absolute no, because journalism has this very traditionally antagonistic relationship with the Department of Corrections. What happened was I massaged the words and changed the semantics around. I said I teach “media writing,” which is ultimately journalism, but couched nicely.
It was a hit. The men I worked with loved learning the tools of journalism; they loved being able to tell their own stories. For the first time, they realized that their stories mattered. So for me, it opened up this world of: “This can be done; we can do this.” I created this immersive class where I brought in students from the college I was teaching at, UMass Amherst, into the local jail. They were doing reporting; they were actually doing storytelling and creating ideas. People on the outside were getting outside statistics. The guys on the inside were interviewing each other. I realized that this should be not only done in this small county jail; this should be a national initiative.
I went into the mindset of: “We need to teach them how to do this, because people can’t just do journalism without understanding how to do it.” So I started figuring out how to do a curriculum and a textbook. I was really lucky; I got the Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard to do just this: to create a curriculum, to create its next book to be able to take this to a national level.
“The men I worked with loved learning the tools of journalism; they loved being able to tell their own stories. For the first time, they realized that their stories mattered. So for me, it opened up this world of: ‘This can be done; we can do this.’”
In the process, I was researching other prison newspapers and came across the San Quentin News, which is an amazing publication. Everybody kept telling me that I needed to go meet these guys and needed to go meet their advisor, Yukari Kane. So in 2018, that’s what I did. I went out to basically pick the brains of the guys at San Quentin and harass Yukari about finding out how she did what she did.
It was instant synergy. She and I met, and we realized that we wanted to do this together. In 2018, we joined forces, and the Prison Journalism Project came out of that.
YUKARI KANE: I’ve been a journalist for about 20 years as well. I’ve also mostly been a business journalist covering technology for organizations like Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. I grew up in the ’80s, and I’m Japanese, and there was a lot of U.S./Japan trade conflict. I saw a lot of misunderstandings all around, so I wanted to become a journalist to help shed light and to tell stories in a deeper way—get beyond the surface.
But I had nothing to do with incarceration. I wasn’t touched by it personally. I wasn’t involved in criminal justice. I knew that the U.S. had a broken system and that it unfairly targeted and punished Black men in particular. I was against the death penalty. But it wasn’t one of my causes.
One day, I got an email from a friend who said that San Quentin News was looking for a journalism instructor to teach guys who wanted to write for San Quentin News, which is the only entirely prisoner-run newspaper in the country. I decided to do it because I had the time and thought that maybe I could get outside of my box a little bit.
It was completely transformative for me. To be honest, when I first started, I knew that the system was broken and I was sympathetic to a lot of the challenges and the reasons, but there was always this sense that people were inside because they committed crimes and that they were criminals. Until I got there, it didn’t really connect for me that all the issues that so many of us care about out here—homelessness, urban poverty and public school education and mental health, child welfare—are so intricately connected to the incarceration system; that a lot of these issues and challenges are what led to so many men and women ending up in prison. And then other challenges were ones that they face when they come out, and that often bring them back inside again. If we care about any of those issues, we also have to care about incarceration.
“Until I got there, it didn’t really connect for me that all the issues that so many of us care about out here—homelessness, urban poverty and public school education and mental health, child welfare—are so intricately connected to the incarceration system; that a lot of these issues and challenges are what led to so many men and women ending up in prison. . . If we care about any of these issues, we also have to care about incarceration.”
I became a journalist to tell stories about people that can’t tell stories themselves, or to shed light in a way that doesn’t see the light of day. There are so many stories inside, if they had the ability to tell them. Frankly, as a journalist, it’s tempting—I hear some stories and think, “Oh, I would really love to write that story.” But I felt like they should be told themselves within the community; that nobody could do a better job than they could; that, as an outside journalist, it was impossible to get really deep and get to know people enough to be able to tell it in the way that it should be told and the way it could be told.
I felt like my role in this space was to support, to edit, to help conceive and shape the story. And then also for us to be training our writers in the tools of journalism so they could tell the stories themselves.
KEOHANE: Thank you both so much—those answers are really great. It’s cool to hear about how you came from different but similar starting places and then found each other with the Prison Journalism Project and at San Quentin News.
I am really interested in the development of the curriculum and the nitty gritty behind-the-scenes of the Prison Journalism Project. If you go to your website, you see the great stories that you publish—journalism, but also poetry, other things. I’m curious too about the other side: how you provide incarcerated writers with this training. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you develop and carry out the training, and how you tailor this teaching to the particular difficulties of writing in prison.
PASHA: Both of us are actually still teaching behind bars. When the pandemic hit, everything shut down, but we’re still doing it. Yukari is with the Northwestern Prison Education Program, so she’s doing a correspondence course. I’m teaching via Zoom inside one of the local county jails here in Pennsylvania.
When we think about education, we realize that we’re working with a population that has varied backgrounds in terms of their educational attainment. So we try to keep it straightforward. We’re in the process of creating what we call PJP J-School, a correspondence-based course that relies on modules that break down the different elements of journalism, from lead writing to observational skills. One of the real advantages our men and women have is that they are naturally very strong observers. People don’t realize how much of journalism involves the ability to observe what’s happening around you and constantly be aware of changing scenarios and staying on top of those things. We found that our writers are naturally good at that, given the place they’re at.
“I became a journalist to tell stories about people that can’t tell stories themselves, or to shed light in a way that doesn’t see the light of day. There are so many stories inside, if they had the ability to tell them. Frankly, as a journalist, it’s tempting—I hear some stories and think, “Oh, I would really love to write that story.” But I felt like they should be told themselves within the community; that nobody could do a better job than they could; that, as an outside journalist, it was impossible to get really deep and get to know people enough to be able to tell it in the way that it should be told and the way it could be told.”
With these modules, we try to teach them how to take those observations and then write them in these exercises: to be able to break down the process of creating an inverted pyramid; understanding what information is the most important; how to separate your opinion, which is very difficult—difficult for everybody, but definitely inside to separate opinion from what you can factually verify; how to disperse a rumor.
These are some of the challenges that we do have inside. We’re creating the PJP J module as handout-based. We have an amazing group of volunteers that we’re going to be tapping to be able to create some of these handouts.
While that is under creation, we have been—for a while now—creating basic tip sheets and journalism primers that we send inside. They’re like FAQs of the way journalism is done, so people understand what a lead is, people understand how to attribute. There’s a style guide, so they understand how to do things. We call it the “PJP Style Guide” because it’s based on the AP, but there are different elements that we’ve tailored to prison life and prison words. Every time one of our writers sends us something—and definitely when it gets published—we acknowledge that publication and we send it back to them and we include these handouts and tip sheets.
We also have already started a contributing writers programs. Some writers are just happy to get their stuff published; they just want to see their things up there. Other writers, which we find very quickly, are eager to learn how to improve their writing and how to take it to the next level: how to become actual prison journalists. They rise to the top fairly quickly, and after they publish a certain amount and a certain quality that we consider our spotlights or features, we invite them to join us as contributing writers. They get a lot more one-on-one feedback and editing and training. Given that we have published, since last year, over 500 stories with over 200 writers, it’s very difficult to always be able to do in-depth one-on-ones. But even then, we do try to send them their stories back with annotations and some understanding of how their work has been changed. With our contributing writers, we do develop that relationship a little bit more closely, and they’re the first ones that we’re going to be inviting to join us when the PJP J-School officially launches.
In terms of the way this goes: We send these modules in (it’s all mail-based), then they do the assignments, they do the work, they send it back to us. We have volunteers, as I mentioned, who are gonna be helping us write these handouts. These are people that have been journalists for decades and are extremely, extremely talented and well-established. We have a really great pool of talent that is willing to go in through these handouts and work with our writers.
One of the things in journalism, which I’m sure Yukari will agree with, is that it is a very elitist industry. It is very difficult for people to break through, especially people from marginalized communities. Both of us are women of color, and we had our own struggles. We were fortunate. We were in a newsroom. We were able to have mentors, people that were willing to work with us.
So what we want to do through the PJP J-School and through the publishing side of the Prison Journalism Project is to provide that mentorship and be able to help give those skill-sets and help them to hone their writing skills a little bit better to be able to take it to the next level. We see ourselves as a launching pad. The ultimate goal is for our writers to be trained enough that they can get their stuff published in mainstream publications.
We’ve already been really fortunate—a number of our contributing writers have been published in The Washington Post or the San Francisco Public Press or The Marshall Project. We have a really great group that’s already starting to benefit from the work we’re doing inside.
“One of the real advantages our men and women have is that they are naturally very strong observers. People don’t realize how much of journalism involves the ability to observe what’s happening around you and constantly be aware of changing scenarios and staying on top of those things. We found that our writers are naturally good at that, given the place they’re at.”
KEOHANE: Thank you so much; that’s really cool to hear about. This is similar to what you touched upon and it’s something that we encounter a lot in our work at PEN, but there are a whole host of challenges that every incarcerated writer faces—not only just to sitting down and writing, but also to getting published, which you touched on briefly; to connecting with other writers inside.
I can only imagine that, without access to the internet or to outside sources, incarcerated journalists face even greater difficulties. I’m curious about how you approach the intersection of these challenges: a) just writing behind bars itself, and b) journalism without sufficient access to the internet or the outside world. Additionally, a hot topic now is fake news, so how do you approach fact-checking, which is an essential part of journalism?
KANE: I can talk about that, and I’ll talk about what we’re doing now and what we hope to do in the future once we increase our funding. Right now, the starting point for our writers is a three-page list of writing prompts that are geared toward helping them get a start and also giving them some idea of the kind of stories and information that they could provide to an outside readership, that could be interesting but could also shed light. They run the gamut from things about COVID and the vaccination situation, as well as any outbreaks, to prison life, prison conditions, etc.
The vast majority of stories coming in right now are essays because there just aren’t enough writers who are trained in journalism. There aren’t enough journalism education programs inside. So they take the form of personal essays. What we’ve been trying to do is work with the writers to turn their pieces into reported essays. That means being a bit more intentional with observation; integrating some interviewing; being more precise, factual in observation; and honestly cutting out a lot of the speculation that creeps in, the suppositions. For example, they might say, “Prison administration is doing XYZ because they don’t want us to have something.” We’ll cut that out because unless they’ve spoken to somebody in the prison administration and they’ve said this, that’s their perception.
We might cut it out or we might change it to say, “In my opinion.” We edit in the proper context and the transparency in terms of attribution and what is opinion and what isn’t. That, we think, is really important. We do think that no matter how much they get trained, the biggest competitive advantage for incarcerated writers is that first-person reporting: observation, interviews—those are things that outside reporters just don’t have access to as much as they would. The reporters probably wouldn’t get the honest answers that incarcerated writers would get, either. That’s what we really emphasize right now.
In terms of fact-checking, we just don’t have the manpower right now to do a thorough fact check. We would like to. We have a couple of things: One, we have a disclaimer at the end of every story saying that we don’t fact-check. Then, we ask our volunteer editors and we ourselves make sure that we run at least a basic fact check: names of organizations, names of their prisons; any institutions are referred to in full with their official names on first reference. For example, we explain any shorthand; we make sure we’re spelling out abbreviations—that sort of thing. Combining all of that, we try to do the minimum to make sure that the stories do have integrity, and then be very clear about what we’re not doing.
Going forward, our intent is fully to have a fact checker on staff, to have researchers. We hope to have formerly incarcerated journalists, ideally coming through our PJP curriculum and our inside programs. They could assist with the reporting.
Even today, with the contributing writers, it’s been awesome because they’ve started to understand where they need outside research help. I’ve started seeing stories where there’s a little note for us that says, “Could you plug in the most recent COVID number here?” For me, that’s a huge win, because they’re starting to understand what they can’t get inside and what they can get inside. Part of the support that we want to be able to provide is to make sure that we can do that outside reporting to supplement their inside reporting.
“We see ourselves as a launching pad. The ultimate goal is for our writers to be trained enough that they can get their stuff published in mainstream publications.”
KEOHANE: Thank you, that’s so interesting. Earlier, Shaheen, in your first answer, you talked about the antagonistic relationship that often exists between journalism and prison officials. You have both spoken about the constant back and forth of writing from the inside to the outside. And then, Yukari, in your answer, you spoke about someone writing, “The prison is doing such and such.” Obviously, each time writing goes back and forth, it’s monitored by prison officials and there’s opportunity for censorship. I was curious if you’ve had any tensions there—you spoke about this a little, in the language of “journalism” versus “media.” Have you had tensions in this back and forth of the writing? If so, how do you work around that? Building off that—and this is something that we think about in our program a bit—how do you protect the writers from retribution, but also ensure that they can write freely?
PASHA: That’s a great question. We’ve been somewhat fortunate in the sense that, because we’re not going through an established individual prison education program that falls under the educational portions of the prison, it’s much more directly interactive with the incarcerated men and women through JPay or CorrLinks or letters. We haven’t had anyone from the administration officially shut down anything that we’re trying to do inside, because we don’t go through them. We’re circumventing and going straight to the people inside.
That being said, both of us are teaching within established prison education programs as well, so there is some understanding of having to play by the rules—explaining, and I speak for myself, that this is the work I’m doing; this is what I’m handing in. So far I haven’t had any major pushback.
There might be some concern about, “How do you make sure they don’t just tell lies or stuff like that?” But I haven’t run into that. That being said, I have heard back from some of our writers that sometimes they’ve had people inside their facilities comment on, “Well, you’re certainly saying a lot now,” or “You’re certainly writing a lot; you have a big mouth.” Things like that. It’s one of those things that we have tried to work with our writers on to make sure that they’re secure and they’re safe.
In terms of how to assure their safety: I don’t think there’s any way anybody on the outside can ensure somebody’s safety. We’ve had discussions with our writers; we make sure that they understand what they’re asking us to publish. We will not publish anything that we cannot verify, like accusations or things like that. But we do make sure that they’re aware that there are always risks. A number of my writers have told us, “What we feel is that we need to have agency. Everything has been taken away from us. We need to have the ability to make the decision of what we’re willing to fight for.”
Others have said, “What more can people take from me?” So I think that remembering that they are men and women who have agency inside and giving them the power to decide what they’re comfortable writing about is part of how we view our relationship with our writers.
“The biggest competitive advantage for incarcerated writers is that first-person reporting: observation, interviews—those are things that outside reporters just don’t have access to as much as they would. The reporters probably wouldn’t get the honest answers that incarcerated writers would get, either. That’s what we really emphasize right now.”
KANE: I would just add one more thing. One of the areas that we’ve discussed internally is bylines. Journalistically, for transparency, we would love for as many of our writers as possible to publish under their first and last names because, as a general principle in journalism, if you’re going to say something, it’s much more credible to say it identifying yourself rather than to write something anonymously. But we also recognize that our writers are writing in difficult conditions.
What we’ve decided to do is we explain to them why we really encourage them to publish under their first and last names, but if they don’t feel comfortable, then the second thing we would like to do is to be able to articulate why they’re withholding their first or last name. Trying to communicate via mail and JPay email can be difficult. So if they do ask for their stories to be published anonymously or first name only, without a reason, we will still do that.
The way we’re dealing with many of these challenges is just that we are transparent. We try to be transparent about every decision we’re making and be transparent about what we know and what we don’t know. With the bylines, you’ll see that it says, “This writer has asked for his name to be withheld.” The reason why we say that is because we want the reader to know that we know who they are. We don’t publish any story by somebody who hasn’t been verified. But we’re also honoring their wishes as well in recognition of the challenging situation they’re in.
KEOHANE: Thank you. I hadn’t really thought about that—how even a pseudonym can be interpreted differently in a journalism space. That’s really interesting.
I’m curious about something you touched on earlier, about the content of the writers. At PEN America, we talk a little bit about how there are disadvantages and advantages to using the term “prison writing.” I’m curious about how you think about the content of “prison journalism”—does the content of the writing you receive concern issues primarily behind bars? Or are your writers thinking and writing about issues beyond prison?
KANE: That’s an interesting one. We’re still thinking through it, and it’s always evolving. We have had writers sending in stories that don’t have anything to do with their situations or their environments. I think we’re at a place right now where we are the Prison Journalism Project, and we have to have focus.
There are so many reasons to publish writing from inside. But our reason is that we want to support our writers so they can shed light from the inside about their own communities. In doing so, we think they can shift the narrative about criminal justice and ultimately change the system, make it better. We don’t do direct advocacy. We want to work in the same way that any good journalism works. We want to publish and we want to empower and amplify their voices, ultimately to shed light about criminal justice.
Quite frankly, if you’re trying to pitch a story to an outside publication from an incarcerated writer, it’s a hard sell. It wouldn’t be transparent unless it was clear that they were writing from inside the walls, and I think the interest would be on how whatever they’re writing about touches them personally.
In that sense, in terms of what we want to do, we do work with them on stories about and around prison, but inclusive of all the challenges and the experiences that led them there—and then with formerly incarcerated writers, the challenges of reentering, and the joys too.
“I don’t think there’s any way anybody on the outside can ensure somebody’s safety. We’ve had discussions with our writers; we make sure that they understand what they’re asking us to publish. We will not publish anything that we cannot verify, like accusations or things like that. But we do make sure that they’re aware that there are always risks.”
KEOHANE: Thank you. You touched in your answer briefly on advocacy. The line between writing or art and advocacy is, in this justice art space, difficult to identify sometimes and—a lot of times—to preserve. I’m curious if you could speak about how you approach and maintain that distinction. If you receive a piece that writes about clear abuses in the system or situations that might really call for advocacy, what do you do? Or if you receive a piece—I saw on your site that there are some pieces written by family members who have incarcerated loved ones. How do you approach those scenarios?
PASHA: It is a challenge because we feel for people inside; we feel for the communities, both those inside and those outside who are affected by it. But as a journalistic organization, from the beginning, what Yukari and I are comfortable with is: We are here to tell the stories, to share what’s happening inside and outside of those impacted, but we are doing it in a journalistic fashion and are not advocates. We do not advocate a certain cause. We don’t advocate for individual writers and their cases.
In fact, one of the guidelines that we have for our writers is that we won’t publish anything about a person’s personal case; they can’t write pieces for us that are trying to retry their case in the media. That being said, we have had writers that have talked about different abuses or things that have happened to them inside. Even in those cases, we will ask them, “Do you have any sort of documentation that we can share, that we can include?” In those cases that we have, they have shared it with us and they have provided us with information to show where the complaints were, what the findings were. Things like that, we feel like you can absolutely highlight, and you should. Part of our job as journalists is to show what’s hidden, but it has to be done in a responsible way so that you don’t wind up basically telling stories or rumors that you can’t verify. We’re very careful with that.
In terms of advocacy, while we’re not sitting there deliberately advocating for one thing or another, we believe the work that we do allows our men and women to advocate for themselves. That’s where the power lies. For men and women incarcerated, if they can have the tools to be able to tell their own stories, to be able to do it with nuance, to be able to do it with power and be able to then get that on a platform that is not necessarily just a niche platform only seen by people within that own community—but a wider platform of people that may not even agree with them. That is where the power to change actually happens. Our whole mission is to give them the tools, give them the ability to write their stories, to learn how to get it published in a mainstream publication where they’re going to be up against people that don’t believe them or don’t believe in them. And yet, they’re able to do it with such strength and truth and power that people are interested in that. And that’s where change happens. What you need is people that may not have thought about it before suddenly becoming interested in the lives of people behind bars, and for people behind bars and people that are formerly incarcerated or incarceration-impacted to be the people at the front, leading the change that we’re going to see.
We consider our publication a launching pad to be able to do that, to tell your stories. But as a publication, we make it very clear that we’re not going to be advocating for any individual or cause, and we’ll publish different viewpoints—some that Yukari and I might not necessarily agree with, as long as it’s factually credible and that we can give it a platform.
“There are so many reasons to publish writing from inside. But our reason is that we want to support our writers so they can shed light from the inside about their own communities. In doing so, we think they can shift the narrative about criminal justice and ultimately change the system, make it better. We don’t do direct advocacy. We want to work in the same way that any good journalism works. We want to publish and we want to empower and amplify their voices, ultimately to shed light about criminal justice.”
KEOHANE: Thank you. I really love that answer. It is so powerful: Writing is itself a form of advocacy; it doesn’t necessarily need to be distinct. That’s really great to hear more specifically about. My last question: Thinking about looking forward, you founded the Prison Journalism Project during COVID. Just founding anything during a pandemic is challenging in itself, and founding something during a pandemic that works with people behind bars adds another layer of difficulty. I was wondering if you could touch briefly on what it was like to found this during a pandemic, and then also how you see your work changing after the pandemic is over, how you see it growing and maturing in the next five years or so.
KANE: For us, the pandemic was—I hate to use the word “opportunity” because it was such a bad situation. But it did: it showed us a way that we can do our work effectively without going through official channels, because we were forced into the situation where we had no choice. Our only avenue was to work with our writers on an individual basis because all the programs were closed. It showed us a way to work and probably to reach writers who don’t have programs. That has really shaped the way we’re going to work going forward.
Going forward, we’ll want to work with the programs as well as they reboot again. Right now, a big component of the stories are pandemic-related, whether it’s about the vaccination rollout, the continued cases of infection, and the conditions around that. For a while, just as every media organization is going to have their stories, we’re going to have ours, as well, about programs coming back. What’s that first visitation like after they haven’t been able to see their families in person for a year? Those kinds of stories. If anything, the pandemic stories have also shown us what kind of news and events are possible to come out.
A big part of what we do is create awareness about things and events and situations that happen inside and what should be known outside. Recently, for example, we had a couple of stories and articles from writers in California because their tablet vendor was going to be changed. The California Department of Rehabilitation was going to end their relationship with JPay, and they were going to move to GTL tablets. They wrote about what that meant. So they’re starting to see, starting to think about what they want the outside world to know, how they want things to be changed and how they can add to that conversation.
That’s not going to change five years down the line. I think we’d like to be doing meatier stories as we get funding. We’d like to bring some supporting reporters and editors on so we can make their stories better and help provide the background with outside reporting, to solidify the stories and to continue to help polish their craft.
We would like to do a lot more collaborative journalism. Part of what we see as an opportunity here is we have over 200 writers across 28 states and Canada right now. We’re constantly working to increase our writing pool so it reflects the diversity of this community. If we can connect the dots about anything—between prisons, between states, maybe someday across borders—then there are stories that we can shed light. They may not be hard-hitting investigative stories, because there are real consequences for our writers, but it could still shed light in a powerful way. There already is some good work on prison food, for example, and how it is different from state to state, from prison to prison. For every aspect of prison life, you can do these stories that connect the dots.
That’s definitely in our sights. Shaheen can talk more about our education aspirations as well.
“That’s where the power lies. For men and women incarcerated, if they can have the tools to be able to tell their own stories, to be able to do it with nuance, to be able to do it with power and be able to then get that on a platform that is not necessarily just a niche platform only seen by people within that own community—but a wider platform of people that may not even agree with them. That is where the power to change actually happens.”
PASHA: I wanted to add that, for me and for Yukari, education has been the foundation of this. Ultimately, what we would like is for our curriculum, for our modules, to be in prisons around the country and ultimately to have credit-bearing programs attached to them.
The program that I taught back in Massachusetts gave credit to our incarcerated men. For me, that was a huge win because I did not want it to go to waste. They’re learning something, but I want it to be taken to the next level where they can also be able to go on and get higher education for it. Credit-bearing courses are something we are really, really all about.
We want to partner with more university programs and other prison education programs around the country to have our materials inside. We’re in the process of creating a textbook. It would be the first complete guide for prison journalists, a reporting guide for prison journalists textbook that would also have a comic component to it because we understand that our men and women have different learning styles and we want to make sure that it’s accessible to everybody.
Ultimately, for both the curriculum side and the publishing side, our goal is to create a nationwide prison journalist network. That is what we are aiming to do. We want to have correspondence in prisons and jails around the country. That’s important to us.
One of the statistics I always throw out, which we all know: 2.3 million people are behind bars. That’s the size of a small country. How do you have an entire population the size of a country without any local correspondents, where everyone reporting about them is the equivalent of a foreign correspondent? That blows my mind. If we give them the educational tools and the publishing tools to be able to do that, I think we can absolutely accomplish that over the next few years.
“One of the statistics I always throw out, which we all know: 2.3 million people are behind bars. That’s the size of a small country. How do you have an entire population the size of a country without any local correspondents, where everyone reporting about them is the equivalent of a foreign correspondent? That blows my mind.”
KANE: The one thing I would also add is: We don’t believe in journalism for exposure. This has been something that Shaheen and I have agreed on from the very beginning. Right now, we are an all-volunteer team. We put in our time. We’re raising funds, and that’s still coming. Our goal is to pay our writers for the best work. As a placeholder and a reminder of this goal, we started paying for a story—the best story of the week—which is chosen by a roster of volunteers and team members and various people in our community; it’s not us doing the choosing. Our goal is to pay our writers for their best work.
Part of our mission, too, is we don’t want to be exclusive. We do have a publication, and it’s meant to be a launching pad, as Shaheen said. We see our function as helping our writers get out and tell their stories more broadly. So we also provide support in doing one-on-one work, helping them get their op-eds published, edited. We help edit and work on pitches to publications, and so forth. Those payments for that work go entirely to the writer. We think it’s really important that that’s not how we get funded, that whatever that payment is goes 100 percent to that writer.
KEOHANE: Thank you. You talk about over two million incarcerated—and now a hot topic is the decline of local journalism and the rise of news deserts. Over two million in prison—that is a media desert and a news desert. So I think that the work you guys are doing is really awesome. I’m so happy that we get to feature you on this Temperature Check, and we get to feature in our dispatch from the inside one of the pieces that’s on your site. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I really enjoyed learning more about your work.
PASHA: Thank you.
KANE: Thank you.