Decline of Prison Press: Economic and Political Factors

face of a prisoner

Economic and political factors help to explain the disappearance of most prison newspapers and magazines since the mid-1980s. The U.S. prison population began growing rapidly about 1980 and subsequently became exceptionally large. Mass incarceration contributed to prison crowding and other strains on prison resources and management. In such circumstances, support for the prison press lost out to other prison priorities.

The economics of the prison press have never been favorable. Prisoners editing The Monthly Record at Wethersfield State Prison in Connecticut about 1960 earned 25 cents per day. In contrast, prisoners working in the boiler room earned 75 cents per day.^ Editors of the Angolite in Louisiana State Prison in the late 1970s estimated that they earned about 5 cents an hour.^ Prisoners, like other persons, will write for newspapers and do other work for little pay if they feel such work is important and valued. Income to cover prison press expenses for supplies, printing, and distribution has come from inmate welfare funds, general prison revenue, subscription fees, outside grants, and to a much less extent, advertising. Contributions and grants to the prison press matters materially and symbolically:

Under {U.S. President} Reagan, the NEA {National Endowment for the Arts} severely cut financial aid to fledgling magazines, and by 1984, every journal devoted to prison writing had gone under.^

Prison publications have tightly constrained prospects for subscriber and advertiser acquisition campaigns. Economic pressures easily cause prison publications to fail.

Political problems can also cause prison publications to fail. Prison publications’ editors and supporters have highlighted the role of these publications as members of the “fourth estate.”^ ^ ^ ^ Prison publications could provide the public with information useful for effectively governing prisons and guarding against abuses. Prison publications that are weak, complacent, or co-opted by administration interests might fail to perform these functions. Moreover, the concept of the fourth estate tends to presume that the public has an interest in continually addressing and correcting prison problems. For the public as a whole, that does not seem to be true.

In the early 1970s, prisoners began having some success in getting substantive judicial review of prison administrators’ decisions concerning the prison press. Prior to the mid-1960s, U.S. courts usually took a “hands-off” approach to prison administration.^ That approach subsequently changed. In 1971, prison officials at the Western State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, for reasons that are not clear, padlocked the office of the prison publication Vibrations. The prison officials refused to allow prisoners to continue publishing Vibrations, and they placed prisoners associated with the publication in solitary confinement. The prisoners turned to the courts for redress of these actions. A U.S. appeals court found that the transfer to solitary confinement, without notice of charges, a hearing, or unusual circumstances, did not meet minimal due process requirements.^ In 1974, a U.S. District Court ordered the Vermont Department of Corrections and the Warden of the Vermont State Prison:

To cease suppression of the January, 1973, issue of The Luparar {a prison newspaper}, to return the copies of that issue that they seized to the editor and staff of the Luparar, to permit that issue to be mailed to subscribers outside the prison, to promulgate regulations dealing with the publication of the newspaper if there is continued interest in publishing it, and to provide a review procedure in those regulations in accordance with that described earlier in this opinion.^

In the early 1980s, California courts ordered prison officials to reinstate an editor of the San Quentin News and to allow that newspaper to resume publication.^ California courts also ordered prison officials to allow the Soledad Star News to publish a cartoon, a photograph, and two articles.^ At the same time, prisoners lost other cases in which they asked judges to overturn prison administrators’ decisions regarding prison publications.^ Nonetheless, by the mid-1980s, prison administrators could no longer be confident that they could control prison publications without concern for judicial review.

Increased judicial engagement with prison publications probably prompted prison officials to avoid creating or sustaining such publications. A perceptive judge observed:

A warden seldom will find himself subject to public criticism or dismissal because he needlessly repressed free speech; indeed, neither the public nor the warden will have any way of knowing when repression was unnecessary. But a warden’s job can be jeopardized and public criticism is sure to come should disorder occur. Consequently, prison officials inevitably err on the side of too little freedom.^

In considering a prison publication case in California, another judge similarly explained:

It is recognized that the department {California Department of Corrections} is under no compulsion to permit the publication of newspapers within our prisons. It has, however, made a stab in that direction but, for its pains, has been subject to a rolling barrage of First Amendment artillery. If the department can live with the guidelines promulgated in this opinion – as I have suggested at the outset, it can – no harm will be done. On the other hand, if it finds the guidelines intolerable, it will simply have to discontinue a worthwhile educational and vocational training program.^

By 1985, five out of seven California state prison newspapers had vanished. One of the remaining two was printed only sporadically.^ Prison newspapers in the three federal prisons had also disappeared. An attorney with the U.S. Bureau of Prisons explained:

“Rather than continue litigating and letting the courts decide what we could print, we took action, “ said John Shaw, an attorney with the Bureau of Prisons. “With no newspapers, censorship isn’t addressed.”^

Hundreds of prison newspapers existed under the “hands off” judicial position prior to the 1960s. The absence of such publications now seems to be of little judicial or public concern.

Legal victories for First Amendment rights, like literary awards, are highly prized. To the extent that such victories hurt the persons made the objects of battle, champions might respond by pointing to the need for further, bigger victories. The Warren Courts’ enlargement of crime defendants’ constitutional rights probably contributed to the rise of mass incarceration.^ Legal victories that the prison press secured in the 1970s and early 1980s similarly contributed to its subsequent demise.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *