Prisoner Publications Have Largely Vanished

face of a prisoner

By the late 1990s in the U.S., the vibrant prison press earlier in the century had nearly vanished. The decline in the number of prison publications seems to date to the 1980s, but it is not well documented.^ In the year 2000, the number of prisoner written and published newspapers and magazines was about five. Only two prison publications remain with significant public recognition: The Angolite and Prison Legal News.

The Angolite is a bi-monthly prison news magazine. Published in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, The Angolite was founded in 1952. In 1976, a new warden willing to experiment gave The Angolite much more editorial freedom:

The Angolite would now be free to investigate, photograph, and publish whatever it wanted. The only restrictions, he {the warden} said, would be that it would not be permitted to criticize prison employees who were not in policy-making positions and that it would be required to exercise some restraint in using prison jargon.^

The Angolite carefully established its independence from the prison administration and prisoner factions within the prison. It began to put into practice journalistic ideals. As reporters, editor Wilbert Rideau and his assistant editor Billy Sinclair:

roamed freely about the prison working sources and researching stories. The sight of the two, Rideau with a camera and Sinclair with a notepad, became a familiar one in the prison’s many corridors. …The prison employees were not enthusiastic about the roving reporters. {The Warden} admitted that it disturbed some of his staff to have to answer questions put to them by inmates. “They never had to do this before,” he said.^

Rideau and Sinclair had special status as journalists:

The two did not observe normal prison routines and often ate their meals in their small sunlit office at the end of a corridor in the main prison complex. The two, in fact, had a number of unusual privileges. State officials, for instance, allowed the pair to venture out of the prison with a guard to cover a story. In addition the two could make regular use of a telephone.^

The Angolite achieved considerable public success. A leading scholar of prison journalism declared, “No other publication in the two centuries of prison publishing was as hard-hitting, unfettered, and successful….”^ In 1979, Rideau and Sinclair won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association. In 1980, Rideau and Sinclair won the George Polk Award for Special Interest Reporting.^ By the mid-1990s, The Angolite had attracted nearly 4000 subscribers.^

angolite prison magazine cover

In addition to being the home of the Angolite, the Louisiana State Penitentiary is also the only prison in the U.S. that has its own prison radio station. The station is KLSP. The station director and most of the disc-jockeys are prisoners. The broadcast programs include a variety of gospel music, bluegrass, hip-hop, a Muslim-oriented talk-show, and some live celebrity interviews.^

Another surviving prison publication is Prison Legal News (PLN). PLN is a monthly prison news magazine published outside prison, without financial support or direct regulation from prison authorities. Since its first issue in 1990, the publication has been under the editorship of Paul Wright, who did time as a prisoner in the Washington State Reformatory. PLN is a hefty 48-page publication with detailed, original articles on law and policy relating to prisoners. Advertising, subscription fees, and grants support the cost of the non-profit publication. Both prisoners and non-prisoners author articles for it. PLN circulates about 6000 printed copies per month and estimates its monthly readership at 54,000 (9 readers per copy). About 65% of PLN’s readers are prisoners. The other 35% are persons outside prison:

civil and criminal trial and appellate attorneys, public defender agencies, journalists, academics, paralegals, university and law school libraries, prison law libraries, investment bankers, prison rights activists, students, family members of prisoners and concerned private individuals. State-level government officials also subscribe to PLN, including attorney generals, prison wardens, and members of other prisoner related agencies.^

In addition to its monthly print edition, PLN also distributes news through an email list and a well-developed website. PLN also publishes and sells books relating to prison law and policy. PLN’s business model is similar to that of outside trade publications. While successful outside trade publications typically soon confront intense competition from similar, newly founded publications, little such competition has developed for PLN.

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