Inmate-run newspaper seeks to expand, with help of Berkeley graduate students

Arnulfo Garcia, center, editor in chief of the San Quentin News, works in the newsroom at Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison.
Sam Robinson/Courtesy
Arnulfo Garcia, center, editor in chief of the San Quentin News, works in the newsroom at Marin County’s San Quentin State Prison.

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This semester, six UC Berkeley graduate students hatched a business plan that led them to prison.

It is their clients, however, who are wearing the blue uniforms.

The business and policy students, who enrolled in a UC Berkeley Haas School of Business class that provides guidance to nonprofits, arrived at prison to assist the only inmate-run newspaper in California, the San Quentin News. A little more than a dozen felons write, edit and design from behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison in Marin County.

“They are, in my mind, serious journalists,” said Bill Drummond, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and an adviser for the newspaper.

Since 2008, the staff has grown its paper to a 20-page monthly with the help of Drummond and four other professional journalist advisers. Drummond has also brought in his students as volunteers to help edit the paper.

The inmates hope to expand their distribution dramatically with the help of the graduate students, who were brought in to create a comprehensive business model. Together, they aim to send a newspaper to every prisoner in the state.

“There’s quite a few members of the San Quentin News team that are very passionate about writing,” said Richard Lindsey, a former layout editor at the newspaper who was paroled in April after 26 years in prison and has remained on staff as a researcher. “Often, that’s the only form of communication with the outside world.”

The dream

The idea to expand began with the paper’s editor in chief and managing editor, Arnulfo Garcia and Juan Haines, respectively, according to Lindsey. They aim to send the newspaper to every prison in California, as well as to key policymakers.

The San Quentin News was founded in 1940 and has existed on and off over the years, Drummond said. San Quentin Prison Warden Robert Ayers Jr. began the current iteration in 2008. Fifteen of the state’s 34 prisons receive the paper, according to Steve McNamara, adviser for the newspaper and former owner of the Pacific Sun, a newspaper in Marin County. To reach all 34 would be a leap — McNamara called the goal “a little fanciful.”

At its current scope, the San Quentin News has its audience captivated. The newspaper is widely read by prisoners in San Quentin every month, according to Lindsey, who calls himself an artist at heart and has continued with layout work as a volunteer for a legal publication since his release.

“There’s something special when you read it, when you’re reading about prison policy written by a prisoner,” Lindsey said. “It’s like we have a voice.”

He said the news staff has a personal stake in the paper’s success.

“It gives them a sense of meaning to their lives,” Lindsey said. “That’s why everybody is up at first unlock of the day and runs down there to be a part of this, because it’s so fulfilling in a human aspect.”

Both Garcia and Haines are serving life sentences, Lindsey said. This newspaper is how they are making their mark.

The plan

When Drummond heard about the inmates’ goal to expand distribution last February, he directed the editors to Haas adjunct professor Nora Silver, who is director of the UC Berkeley Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership. The center runs a program called Social Sector Solutions, in which students work as consultants for nonprofits.

“The field of social enterprises is pretty new and evolving, and this is a fairly unusual project within the field,” Silver said. “This certainly stretched us.”

Silver chose six graduate students from Haas and the Goldman School of Public Policy to work on the project as part of the semesterlong class. According to Silver, the students will deliver final recommendations Wednesday morning.

The student’s involvement, Drummond said, comes at a key time for the newspaper. Although the state used to provide a free print shop for the inmates, it stopped at the end of 2010, according to McNamara. The prison still provides a free room and computers, but the paper spends about $25,000 to $30,000 per year on printing, distribution and materials not covered by the state.

“It’s a constant search to find more funding,” Lindsey said.

According to Silver, the the plan involves a multifaceted, multiyear process. To finance its goals, the inmates must earn revenue from newspaper subscriptions to subsidize the free issues provided to prisoners and corral more outside volunteers to help in writing grant proposals. And in order to obtain subscriptions — which might come, for example, from recent parolees or San Quentin’s 3,000 volunteers — they need to turn the paper into a well-known brand.

“If you want to get something recognized, everybody’s got to be telling the same story about it,” she said.

Silver said these goals, while ambitious, would be achieved over time in multiple phases. After reaching one phase, the inmates will be able to reach the next, building successively upon milestones until they reach their final objectives. One of the first milestones, she said, is to reach about 10,000 subscriptions.

The people

Shortly after the first ca-chunk of keys signaling the start of another day, the San Quentin News reporters trek down to the newsroom, waiting for prison staff to open the door.

From that moment forward, the room pulses with a constant stream of people writing, editing, typing, speaking, all within a couple of feet of one another. People peek over shoulders and toss around suggestions, Lindsey said. Often, a guard has to come to the door to force staffers out at the end of the day.

“The whole team down there is like a family,” Lindsey said.

Often, the team of reporters is in the background, working, when the graduate students arrive to meet with the editors in the newsroom, said UC Berkeley MBA student Jon Spurlock, one of the six students helping the inmates increase their readership. The meetings, Silver said, are collaborative; for example, sometimes the students hold work sessions, in which they teach the inmates the necessary skills to reach their goal, such as how to market their paper.

The students and news staff are also together in that both face the logistical challenges of working within a prison. Reporters, for example cannot access the Internet, a hurdle they have overcome by utilizing a team of researchers on the outside who send in PDF articles on flash drives.

“(The inmates) think really big and then act really mindfully,” said UC Berkeley MBA student Virginia Zimpel. “I think we’ve kind of taken a page from that book.”

The outside

As one of those researchers, Lindsey spends a couple of hours a day looking up prison issues. He would like to go back to visit someday, he said, but he has not set foot in the newsroom since he left San Quentin on April 5.

It was raining that morning, the sun not quite up and not quite down. Any other day, Lindsey said, he might have been heading to the newsroom in the drizzle. Still, he has stayed to help because he knows what the paper means to his colleagues inside.

“It’s their newspaper. It’s not the prison’s newspaper,” Lindsey said. “I support it as much as I can from outside the walls because I know how important it is inside the walls.”

Contact Melissa Wen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @melissalwen.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the state of California has 33 prisons. In fact, it has 34.