‘Barriers dissolve’: San Quentin News Editing Project, Teach in Prison DeCal link UC Berkeley students with inmates

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When Bill Drummond, journalism professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, or J-School, began teaching university-level courses at San Quentin State Prison, a student asked him to advise the prison’s inmate-run newspaper, San Quentin News.

Drummond seized the opportunity and in 2012 started the San Quentin News Editing Project, a course offered through the J-School. Through the news editing project, Drummond advises San Quentin News, while providing real-world news editing experience to his journalism students.

“Interacting with prisoners … has opened (campus students) eyes in a deeper and meaningful way than if they had read about (prison) issues or studied them,” Drummond said.

When San Quentin News—one of the very few inmate-run publications in the country— first started, the inmates realized they did not know how to write like journalists, according to Aly Tamboura, a former San Quentin News member. Tamboura was the third person to join the news team and was involved in building most of the newspaper’s design and layout.

According to Tamboura, the average reading level of inmates at San Quentin while he was there was about fourth grade, but he said he began to see inmates who did not usually read start reading the newspaper to learn about issues that impacted them.

“From there, many of the incarcerated men wanted to get involved, wanted to write, so we formed a journalism guild,” Tamboura said. “It’s not just learning how to write, it’s reading better, writing better and inevitably having much, much higher communication skills.”

With help from Drummond’s news editing course, San Quentin News won the James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2014.

Campus students directly interact with prisoners and improve the quality and content of the newspaper’s stories, according to Drummond. He said one of the biggest advantages of the course is interacting with prisoners on a “one-to-one basis.”

“The next thing you know all the barriers dissolve, and it’s as though they’re laughing and talking with their friends,” Drummond said. “Because everyone’s upbeat and cheerful in the newsroom, I don’t think we quite grasp how grim life is for them once they leave that newsroom.”

The news editing program also helps change the “predominant narrative of what prisoners are,” Tamboura said. Campus students see the San Quentin News team as people, not prisoners, he added.

Brandon Doan, co-director of Teach in Prison, or TIP — a campus DeCal in which students tutor inmates at San Quentin’s Robert E. Burton Adult School — also said in an email that TIP is a way to humanize inmates.

“From the outside looking in, I think it’s wrong the way society ‘others’ people who have committed crimes,” Doan said in an email. “Our program tries its best to leave judgement at the front door and just be another tool in the students’ hands.”

Since 2000, TIP has provided a “continuous flow of tutors” at the Robert E. Burton Adult School, according to the DeCal’s website.

TIP’s mission, according to Doan, is providing educational help up to grade 12, assisting students in passing the General Education Development, or GED, as well as supporting adult students pursuing college level degrees.

Doan’s favorite part about working with TIP is teaching students how to use a dictionary, because it gives them “their own power to move,” he said in an email.

“I’ve experienced, first hand, the make it or break it difference when someone takes the time to sit with you, notice your potential, and help you bring it out,” Doan said in an email. “I’m just trying to pay it forward and continue standing with people who get left behind.”

Contact Alyssa Bernardino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @alybernardino.