Prisoners Write More for Newspapers and Periodicals Than for Books

face of a prisoner

Prison newspapers and periodicals provide a more accessible vehicle for prisoner-authors than do books. Writing a poem, report, or article usually requires much less investment in time and effort than writing a book. An editor of a book of prisoner’s poetry observed:

A major motivation of those writers {prisoners writing novels}, however, was profit. People in prison wrote novels to make money from them. Some actually did.^

This editor contrasted writing novels with writing poetry. Writing poetry, which many prisoners do, arguably has worse prospects for paying writers than does writing novels. However, almost all authors of both novels and poetry don’t even make enough money to support themselves. Prisoner-authors, like other authors, don’t have good prospects for reasonable pay for their work. Prison newspaper and periodicals enable prisoners to be authors while requiring less of the poorly paying work of writing.

Newspaper and periodical publication lessens an author’s costs of marketing work. Newspapers and periodicals usually have an established base of readers and ongoing, institutionalized processes for attracting new subscribers. A new book, especially one that a first-time author writes, faces a much greater challenge of attracting readers. A single-author book also offers worse opportunities for mitigating market risk through content with diverse forms, voices, and values.

Prison newspapers and magazines historically have supported more prisoner writing and prisoner-authors than has book publishing. From 1798 to 1988, self-identified prisoners and former prisoners wrote about 950 books.^ Assuming an average of 200 pages per book, the total pages was about 200,000. Over roughly half this period, the number of pages published in prison newspapers and magazines was about a million. Newspaper and magazines publish a much higher number of different authors per page on average than do books. The number of prisoner-authors who have been published in prison newspapers and magazines is thus much higher than the number of prisoner-authors who have authored books.

Books are relatively unpropitious media for bringing voices of prisoners and former prisoners into the public sphere. Prison newspapers and prison magazines historically have been more important than prisoners’ books for disseminating diverse prisoners’ perspectives on their prison experiences. Prison newspapers and magazines, however, have largely disappeared since the mid-1980s.

Vibrant Prison Press in 20th-Century U.S.

face of a prisoner

Prisoners in early-twentieth-century America wrote, edited, and printed prison newspapers that had circulation comparable to public newspapers of that time. The history of prison newspapers shows prisoners’ interest in participating in the public sphere. That history shows the feasibility of prisoners using the leading communication media of the time while respecting reasonable concerns for public safety and good prison management. The history of prison newspapers indicates that public officials once considered prisoners’ communications to have considerable public value.

Early ideas for prison newspapers drew upon growing appreciation for the importance of public newspapers. In 1870, a leading prison reformer presented a paper, “The Question of a Prison Newspaper,” at the U.S. National Congress on Penitentiary and Reformatory Discipline. This paper described “the supreme raison d’étre” for a prison publication as conveying public information:

knowledge of passing events, of the questions and strifes that enlist men’s tongues and pens, of the habits of thought and action inwrought into the life of the hour, of the opinions that prevail in society, of the principles and modes of business and labor ^

At the U.S. National Prison Congress in 1895, a presentation described ten points for a “Model Prison Paper.” Among those ten points were the importance of prisoners’ keeping abreast of public information and public developments:

A prisoner who reads the prison paper very long should find himself, when he goes out, very well posted upon public matters. … This can all be presented in a prison paper sufficiently to give every prisoner who reads it a considerable knowledge of the progress of the world.^

The idea that prisoners need to be publicly informed was a radical change from the earlier idea of cutting off all prisoners’ communication with the outside world.

The late-nineteenth-century reformatory movement spurred the development of the prison press. Reformatories served mainly young adults who were first-time offenders. Reformatories emphasized professional administration, education and treatment of inmates through individualized programs and incentives, and prison officials’ expert judgment for determining the necessary period of imprisonment. Zebulon Brockway, a leading prison reformer, served as warden of the first “new” reformatory, the New York State Reformatory at Elmira, from its founding in 1876 to 1900. In 1910, Brockway included in a list of means and motives for “The American Reformatory System”:

The weekly institutional newspaper, in lieu of all outside newspapers, edited and printed by the prisoners under due censorship.^

The underlying idea seems to have been to control and reform inmates intellectually. That idea gave rise to a much more vibrant and liberal prison press.

Prison newspapers and periodicals spread from mainly late-nineteenth-century state reformatories to being published in many state and federal penal institutions in the mid-1930s. The Elmira Reformatory established its prison newspaper, The Summary, in 1883. The Massachusetts State Reformatory at Warnerville /Concord Junction followed with Our Paper in 1885. By 1904, at least ten out of the seventeen state reformatories published newspapers or periodicals.^ An additional six state prisons also produced prisoner publications in 1904. By 1935, about 50% of state and federal penal institutions had published or were publishing prisoner newspapers or periodicals.^ ^ Studies of the prison press have failed to appreciate its long history.^

The Great Depression seems to have spurred the development of the prison press. About half of the prison publications active in 1935 had been started since 1930.^ During the Great Depression, prison industries undoubtedly contracted along with other industries, and perhaps even more so. Prison officials’ concern to keep prisoners occupied in the midst of idle prison industries may have spurred creation of prison newspapers and magazines in the early 1930s. A leading prison librarian provided a somewhat different interpretation in 1945. He observed that prison publications grew “with almost harelike frequency” from 1930 to 1934 “when the public had other worries than the coddling of prisoners.”^

A large number of prison publications existed from beginning of the twentieth century through the early 1980s. From 1904 to 1935, the number of active prison publications rose from at least 16 to 103.^ ^ In 1945, the number was down to 85.^ But by 1959, the number of prison newspapers and magazines was about 200, or perhaps 250.^ ^ In 1966, an extensive survey found 222 general-interest prisoner publications. It also found 113 special-interest prisoner publications serving in-prison clubs and groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Dale Carnegie, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce. About 54% of prisons had a general-interest prisoner publication. Prisons with prisoner publications held 66% of prisoners.^ A count of prison publications in 1974 observed:

If one includes the mimeographed newsletters which serve particular groups within a prison, the total probably goes well over a thousand.^

The Penal Press, an informal association of prison publications, numbered 190 members in 1980.^ A leading authority on the prison press estimated that about 100 prison newspapers and magazines existed in the 1980s.^

Early in the twentieth century, the Star of Hope, a publication of prisoners in New York State prisons, was comparable with typical non-prison newspapers. Prisoners wrote, edited, and printed the Star of Hope. It was the “largest and most widely circulated” prison newspaper of the time. The Star of Hope was a sixteen-page bi-weekly publication costing $2.50 per year. From about 1899 to 1903, about 1200 prisoners contributed about 5160 items to the newspaper. Contributors were from the New York State prisons at Auburn (including the women’s prison), Clinton, Sing Sing, and the Eastern Reformatory at Napanoch.^ ^ About 5000 copies of the Star of Hope were printed per issue. Perhaps 3000 of these copies went to New York prisoners, and the other 2000 to persons outside prisons.^ About this time, the average per-issue circulation of weekly publications produced outside prisons was 2400 copies per title. For daily publications produced outside of prisons, average circulation was 8000 copies. The average daily circulation of U.S. newspapers other than those in the ten largest U.S. cities was 4400 copies per newspaper. Newspapers outside prisons at the beginning of the twentieth century typically had four to twelve pages and cost $1 to $5 per year. Thus in size, cost, and circulation, the Star of Hope was similar to typical non-prison newspapers of its time.

By no later than 1909, other prison newspapers also had considerable circulation inside and outside prisons. Our Paper of the Massachusetts Reformatory was offered to all its prisoners, prisoners’ families, and public officials:

A copy of the paper is given to every prisoner, and after he has read it, he may send it home if he wishes to do so. We have a regular mailing list outside of the prison of some 300 names, including the judges of the courts of the state, and high officials of the state, other institutions similar to our own over the country, prominent penologists, prison congress people, and others interested in such papers. When the state legislature is in session a copy is sent to each member every week. We often print an edition of more than 2000 copies for all these purposes.^

The Mirror of the Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater also had considerable circulation:

{The Mirror} is well known in the West and often quoted by other papers. The circulation is about 2200, for though only 1500 copies are printed weekly they are mailed after being read to almost as many more readers.^

The Summary, published at the Elmira Reformatory, mailed 150 copies per week to outsiders.^ Over all, the eighteen prison publications active in 1909 probably averaged about 1100 copies printed per issue.^ Since distributing prison newspapers within a prison, and then mailing out those same copies to others seems to have been common practice, total circulation was higher than the number of copies printed.

Prison newspapers and magazines continued to have considerable circulation inside and outside prisons through the early 1980s. Prison newspapers and magazines in 1966 produced a total of perhaps 270,000 copies per issue. About 33% of these copies were mailed to persons outside prisons.^ Two experts on the prison press stated in 1960 that the penal press is “serving an inside, as well as outside, readership of 2,000,000 throughout the United States and Canada.”^ ^ At that time, The Spectator, which prisoners at the Michigan State Prison published, was one of the largest prison newspapers:

{The Spectator} claims to reach “just about every nation in the world.” It has a press run of 9,000 copies at present, with 1,400 going outside the prison; 900 are taken home by the guards and other personnel; and a few hundred copies are sold weekly at the front counter of the prison.^

The Monthly Record, which prisoners at the Connecticut State Prison published, was distributed to a relatively large share of persons outside prison:

While serving a prison population of 1,000, the Record also reaches an outside audience of about 1,100, which includes legislators, judges, educators, psychologists, newspaper editors and clergymen. It is sent as far as India, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and is read by such notables as Red Cross President Gen. Alfred E. Gruenther, mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner and jazz musician Eddie Condon.^

The Menard Time, which prisoners at the Illinois State Penitentiary published, was one of the most highly regarded prison newspapers. In 1959, the year of its twenty-fifth anniversary of publication, the Illinois governor declared a “Menard Time Day” for the State of Illinois. The governor declared that the Menard Time had “attained a place of honest respect in the ranks of professional journalism.” The newspaper claimed to have at least 2000 readers inside prisons and 19,000 outside prisons.^ Estimates of circulation in printed copies (each of which could have been read by multiple readers) were considerably lower.^ Prison newspapers unquestionably were vibrant publications.

Prison newspapers didn’t keep up with the growth of newspapers outside prisons across the twentieth century. Copies printed per issue remained on average roughly constant: in 1909, 1935, and 1966, prison newspapers on average printed about 1100, 1600, and 1200 copies per issue, respectively. Newspapers outside prison, in contrast, increased circulation more than threefold: from 1909 to 1965, copies per issue for daily newspapers outside prisons rose from 9,300 to 34,500. Unlike the situation about 1900, the largest prison newspapers about 1960 did not have a circulation comparable to that of a typical daily newspaper outside prison. Compared to prison newspapers, newspapers outside prison had greater economic incentives to respond to the demands of readers and advertisers. They also had fewer constraints hindering such response. The business model and institutional circumstances of prison newspapers weren’t conducive to newspaper growth.

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.