Despite their outsized presence in American popular culture, life within the United States's carceral archipelago remains a great, frightening mystery to most Americans.

With the flow of information tightly controlled by prison authorities, news of horrific abuse, neglect and civil rights violations punctuate the news cycle, briefly, eliciting shock before receding from memory.

For journalists who want to report on prison life, getting and maintaining access remains difficult.

"I think there's very little information about what it's like inside and when there is information, when somebody does go inside the walls, it tends to be fairly superficial because of course they're going in once and you're really scratching only the surface of what happens on a daily basis," says Yukari Kane, a former Wall Street Journal technology reporter who began teaching journalism at California's San Quentin State Prison in 2016.

This does not mean that the complex daily realities of prison life will be lost to history. Working hard to report these for their fellow prisoners and the outside world is a small press corps of prisoners who work across a variety of media to inform, entertain, and keep the record straight.

While most report almost exclusively for their fellow prisoners, some, like Esquire contributing editor, John J Lennon - who is currently serving 28 years to life at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State - build devoted audiences far beyond prison walls.

They toe a delicate line, striving to tell the truth as best they can without alienating prison authorities, or releasing information that could harm their fellow prisoners.

"The guys self censor themselves," San Quentin public information officer, Sam Robinson told The Listening Post's Flo Phillips. "They understand that they are living in a community. There are things that they have the ability to write about but they choose not to ... they live amongst the people that they write about. And so I think you have to ... you have to protect yourself."

These reporters do have one advantage: unrivalled proximity to the subject.

"We've built up a certain reputation or credibility with other prisoners that an outside journalist isn’t going to be able to have," Jeffrey Hillburn, a reporter at The Angolite, a magazine based out of Louisiana State Penitentiary, told the Listening Post’s Martin de Bourmont.

"If you've been in the same dormitory and you've slept beside each other for 5, 10, 15 years then there have been times where family issues come up and the guy needs somebody to talk to and he knows you and he's willing to do that. But then when a story comes up that he may be, may be a participant in the aspects of it, then he's willing to open up and talk to you because of that prior history."

For some prisoners, this privileged access, as well as an acute awareness of how little their circumstances are understood by society at large turns into a sense of social responsibility.

"As far as the prison side goes, I have always been interested in being able to tell my own story and having the autonomy of telling my own story," says Troy Williams, a producer who founded a radio project while serving a life sentence in San Quentin, before his release in 2014.

This sense of responsibility to the truth can go a long way towards rehabilitation, a renewed sense of purpose that drives prisoners to maintain a connection with the world beyond the prison yard.

"At the end of the day, I guess I would say I'm a storyteller and I look forward to telling stories," says Lennon. "I may live in prison but I'm no longer a criminal."

Produced by: Martin de Bourmont and Flo Phillips


John J. Lennon – prison journalist, Sing Sing Correctional Facility and contributing editor, Esquire Magazine

Kerry Myers - former editor, The Angolite and deputy executive director, Louisiana Parole Project

Troy Williams - founder, San Quentin Prison Report and founder, Restorative Media Project

Sam Robinson - Public Information Officer, San Quentin State Prison

Aaron Thomas - sports editor, San Quentin News

Yukari Iwatani Kane - advisor, San Quentin News and co-founder, Prison Journalism Project

Source: Al Jazeera News