Prison Journalism Project finding voices from behind prison walls

Jonathan F. McVerry
March 18, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Journalism faculty member Shaheen Pasha says prison is a “sub-universe hidden behind a wall.” And while most incarcerated individuals eventually get out, they still create a life behind that wall over years of daily routines and long-lasting friendships. It’s a community, she said, and every community needs a newspaper.

“When people care enough to write about what’s happening in your community, it makes you feel like you have value,” said Pasha, an assistant teaching professor in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. “In prison —whether it’s covering a softball game, a new program or an art exhibition — those stories strengthen your humanity.”

While providing a voice for prison communities is critical, it’s not why Pasha, a former legal reporter for Reuters, got involved in prison journalism. Seventeen years ago, her good friend was incarcerated. Seeing him go through the process opened her eyes to the role a newspaper could play as a learning experience and professional development opportunity.

“My friend is college educated and very smart … and he had nothing to do,” she said. “When he started writing, the person he was came out again.”

“Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will get out of jail, and many are not getting out with tangible skills.”

Shaheen Pasha, Bellisario College faculty member

White collar crimes make headlines. Pasha said those criminals are often “treated like superheroes,” while incarcerated “blue collar” individuals like her friend are largely forgotten. Prison newspapers give those overlooked voices a megaphone.

“Everyone treats those who are incarcerated like a lost cause but expects them to be normal when they get out of jail,” Pasha said. “Ninety-five percent of incarcerated people will get out of jail, and many are not getting out with tangible skills.”

These results affect no small number of people. The population of U.S. prisons is over 2.3 million. A single incarceration disrupts lives, families and communities. It can create a cycle of poverty and incarceration that lasts decades and over generations.

The Prison Journalism Project gives inmates a way to exercise their minds and serve their prison communities, while gaining real-life skills for when they leave prison. The program provides tools that teach the fundamentals of journalism, like how to verify and order information, how to write quickly and effectively, how to do basic editing, and more.

Pasha and her colleague Yukari Iwatani Kane founded the Prison Journalism Project to provide these tools for anyone wanting to incorporate journalism into prison life. It’s a win-win-win as inmates stay busy, learn the basics of journalism and build a stronger community.

Kane, an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, is an adviser for the country’s foremost prison newspaper, the San Quentin News, a publication by incarcerated individuals at San Quentin Prison in California. According to its website, the circulation of the San Quentin News is 18,000 and reaches all 35 California prisons, as well as many communities in the state.

“Incarcerated people around the country read the San Quentin News, because they don’t have their own news,” Kane said. “It’s good that they get news that’s relevant to them. The newspaper has a very specific mission to write about rehabilitative efforts to increase public safety and achieve social justice.”

The Prison Journalism Project empowers the men and women who want to write and be a part of that conversation. Topics range from events happening in their prison to first-person accounts of criminal justice in the United States.

Newspapers written and edited by incarcerated individuals have been around since the 1800s. The following century, however, saw the perception of prisons change. In 1959, there were 250 prison newspapers. The amount of private facilities and the punitive nature of incarceration grew in the late 20th century, and these publications began to disappear.

Pasha and Kane’s Prison Journalism Project aims to bring these publications back by making it as easy as possible for prisons to provide this enriching opportunity to their imprisoned population. The two former journalists are creating a universal kit, including a textbook and complete curriculum, that will help incorporate journalism classes in prisons across the country.

“If a volunteer wants to do it, we can provide the textbook,” Pasha said. “If an incarcerated man or woman wants to do it on their own, they can reach out to us and I am happy to come talk and consult to help get the newspaper off the ground.”

Kane wants to see more stories from those incarcerated make an impact outside of prison walls. The energy and passion are there, she says, it’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity.

“Incarcerated people should be a part of the (criminal justice) conversation,” she said. “I’d like journalists, politicians and media organizations on the outside to know these individuals and think about them as experts inside the walls.”

Pasha, who joined Penn State last fall, has been taking steps locally to bridge what happens inside prison walls with the outside world.  With the help of Penn State’s Restorative Justice Initiative, Pasha is hoping to continue to build relationships with local prisons. She has already been volunteering at the Centre County Correctional Facility in State College.

In the fall of 2020, Pasha is teaching a special topics class titled Uncovering Mass Incarceration that will connect Bellisario College students to local prisons. Students will create multimedia projects that uncover different areas of mass incarceration and the prison system in the United States.

“As Shaheen engages students, it will increase their awareness of issues related to incarcerated populations and take them out of their comfort zones,” said Marie Hardin, dean of the Bellisario College. “It will be a powerful learning opportunity led by someone with expertise and inspiring energy.”

Pasha said the Prison Journalism Project’s website, which went live in February, will serve as a launching point for the program. Prison officials, incarcerated people and volunteers can learn more about how the program works and can contact Pasha or Kane to get involved or ask questions.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 18, 2020