The Prison Journalism Project (PJP), a non-profit organization founded in April 2020, trains incarcerated writers to be journalists and publishes their stories with the goal of empowering them to be a vital voice in criminal justice reform. Over the past three years, the project has published over 1,700 pieces of work from more than 600 incarcerated and incarceration-impacted writers representing 180 prisons across 35 states and three countries.
The project is bringing important issues to light, such as diminishing access to programs that further rehabilitation due to COVID-19 and the failure of drug treatment in prisons, first-hand accounts from incarcerated individuals that expose the inadequacy of state and federal prisons to meet the needs of those in their care. These stories and more are featured on the organization’s website, which is powered by WordPress and Newspack, a project from Automattic that provides a publishing platform for small and medium-sized news organizations. Newspack includes professionally designed themes and a set of pre-configured plugins, like Newspack Newsletters and WooCommerce Subscriptions, that help drive audience and revenue.
This week the PJP launched the Prison Newspaper Project, which aims to connect prison publications with a broader general audience, including educators and researchers. At its peak, U.S. prisons running their own newsrooms published 250 prison papers in 1959. The prison press has declined significantly since then, despite massive improvements in the available technology for telling their stories. As of February 2023, the PJP counts 24 operational, prisoner-run news publications across 12 states.
The new Prison Newspaper Project has indexed these publications into a prison newspaper directory. It also has a new category section on the site called “From Prison Newspapers,” where the organization highlights and amplifies the work of incarcerated writers across various publications. Their work is republished to PJP’s wider audience, offering a window into the incarcerated population and the conditions where they are living.
While most of the prison newspapers in the PJP’s directory run on legacy systems or are only available via print-versions with digital archives, a few have online publications. San Quentin News is one that runs on WordPress, publishing beautiful stories of the humanity and artistry of those behind bars. One story features San Quentin artist Idalio Villagran, who “takes prison-constrained creativity and resourcefulness to another level, crafting beautiful roses of various colors from state-issued bread and Kool-Aid.”
Another post features the work of San Quentin artist Edgar Zarate Martinez, who is keeping his Mexican cultural heritage alive through his paintings that reflect his yearning for his family.
PJP was founded by Yukari Iwatani Kane and Shaheen Pasha at Penn State University in 2019, after teaching journalism at San Quentin State Prison and Hampshire County Jail in Massachusetts.
Most of the other indexed prison publications don’t have an online presence, so the Prison Newspaper Project is vital for connecting them and bringing more exposure to prison journalism. Getting these publications online isn’t part of the current scope of the project, but there is a big opportunity here to modernize these newsrooms with WordPress and help them find a global audience.
The Prison Newspaper Project is committed to regularly updating the list of active publications in the directory. People can submit newspapers or magazines not yet listed by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“As this section grows, we hope to offer you more resources on the history of this remarkable part of the fourth estate,” Prison Newspaper Project Editor Kate McQueen said.