Not much has been written about the history of the prison press. Indeed, until now, according to James McGrath Morris, the author of Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars, the only book was The Penal Press by Russell Baird. Because of this, many people would be hard-pressed to name a prison journalist. Two names might come to mind, Wilbert Rideau, editor emeritus of the multi-prize-winning prison magazine The Angolite, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, author of Live From Death Row and other works, who worked as a journalist before his imprisonment and continues to do so. People familiar with Abu-Jamal though might be surprised that he is not mentioned in a book about prison journalism, but this is so because, unlike Abu-Jamal, the prison journalists mentioned are or were affiliated with a prison newspaper or magazine.

In Jailhouse Journalism, Morris has provided a highly readable and informative history of the prison press, which begins in the spring of 1800 in a New York City debtors’ prison. William Keteltas, an attorney who had a practice on Broadway, is responsible for the first prison newspaper in the United States, Forlorn Hope.

From the very inception of the prison press, its mission was to champion the rights of prisoners. Prison journalists believed in the power of the pen, that they could reach outsiders and change the image of convicts. In Keteltas’ case, he campaigned for the elimination of the crime for which he was imprisoned. Rideau and his fellow editor, Billy Sinclair, wrote that the “Angolite is one of the few instruments left us through which to convey realities and to chip away at the monstrous image the public has conceived of us.”

(One of the most moving stories in the book concerns Tom Runyon, a depression-era bank robber in the Iowa State Penitentiary whose writings interested and earned the support of the mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason. In the prison’s monthly paper, Presidio, Runyon wrote a column, “Leaves from a Lifer’s Notebook.” In one of these columns he wrote about Ole Lindquist, a lifer who “had not received a visitor in forty years, a Christmas package in thirty years, or a personal letter in twenty years…. Newspapers and radio stations picked up the story and spread it across the country.” The public immediately responded, sending Ole Lindquist presents, letters and cards. Some people went further, writing to the governor. Lindquist received so much support, the governor commuted his sentence, making him eligible for parole and he was released about two years after Runyon’s profile of him. The Angolite can boast about a similar story. In an article about long-term prisoners, the magazine highlighted the case of Frank Moore, “who after spending thirty-three years in prison was overlooked by the bureaucracy of the corrections department. Following the publicity generated by the Angolite article, the Board of Pardons requested his prison record and shortly thereafter voted to release him.”)

Jailhouse Journalism is not simply about “monstrous” prisoners who picked up the pen when imprisoned, although the book has its share, including the Younger Brothers of the Jesse James Gang and Charles Chapin, famed editor of New York’s Evening World until he shot his wife and was sent up the river to Sing Sing. Included in the book are such “politicals” as the men of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies, as they were nicknamed), who were imprisoned during the Great Red Scare for multiple crimes against the federal government. Moreover, there are two excellent chapters, one on the internment of Japanese-Americans in “Relocation Camps” during World War II, and the other on the 425,871 German, Italian and Japanese prisoners of war from the same war in the 500 POW camps in the continental United States, and their papers.

The very short chapter about Nazi POWs, entitled “Der Ruf” (the Call), is worth the price of the book in and of itself, especially for people unfamiliar with this part of American history. A number of human rights lawyers and others are familiar with the Chinese prison system, which seeks to “reeducate” prisoners. A similar experiment was conducted in American POW camps. The idea was to “reeducate” Nazi POWs, “to help create a non-Nazi postwar Germany by exposing prisoners to the superiority of democracy.” For this task, the Prisoner of War Special Projects Division was created. Former German professors and writers who had exhibited anti-Nazi behavior since their captivity were recruited. These POWs were placed in Fort Philip Kearney in Rhode Island, which came to be known as the Idea Factory or, more simply, the Factory. “The plan called for using literature, movies, newspapers and magazines, music, art, and classes to convert the POWs to American ideals and values.” Already, both Italian and German POWs had at least eighty papers. The Factory conceived of a paper, Der Ruf, to compete with those already in existence. Though rightfully seen as propaganda by the German POWs, Der Ruf had the highest circulation of all the POW papers, probably because it was well-financed by the American government. As a footnote, after the German POWs were repatriated, two of the editors of Der Ruf, Hans Werner Richter and Alfred Andersch, retired to the Bavarian mountains and started Gruppe 47, which grew into an important literary movement which, according to scholar Karl Arndt, “once more made German literature an important factor in world literature.”

On a whole, prison writing aspires to be literature. In this, it has been vindicated by the numerous awards prison journalists have won, as well as the books they have written.

Although Morris writes that the written word has lost its primacy in our lives today, mostly because of television, it still has a power any literate person can discern. It can also transform lives, one reason why the prison press is so important and has struggled against the yoke of the censor.

Censorship, of course, is a great concern of prison journalists, and it is discussed in this book. When prison administrators took to the idea of allowing prisoners to publish papers, it was highly “regulated,” read “censored.” Moreover, at the time of the prison reform movement of 1870, there was a debate whether or not there could be a “free” prison press. (This debate is still with us.) Most prison officials wanted to use the prison press for propaganda purposes, even limit “outside” news. This was a time when prisoners did not have access to outside papers. During the prisoners’ rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, this was challenged in courts and the issue of prison censorship was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court, in such cases as Procunier v. Martinez, Pell v. Procunier, Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union, Turner v. Safley and Thornburg v. Abbott, which basically circumscribed prisoners’ First Amendment rights. There is a brief discussion of the first three cases.

As the millennium approaches, it is also the bicentennial of the prison press. Sadly, the prison press is no longer a vital part of prison life. In fact, the prison press is dying. In 1963, a “free world” paper, the Saturday Review, listed the Top Ten Prison Publications, as well as three Honorable Mentions. Today, because of a scarcity of prison publications, there are only two standouts, the Angolite and Prison Legal News, published by two prisoners in the state of Washington, both of which were not around in 1963.

A prison paper may seem irrelevant to people in the free world, but it is not. Many of the prison papers and magazines mentioned in Jailhouse Journalism received support from outside subscribers. Indeed, outside readers were sometimes the prison press’ greatest supporters. I am convinced that despite the “monstrous image” the public may have of prisoners, some people want to hear from them. For those who do not, I can only state that there is something prisoners have to say in their writings and it is worth reading. As a start, read Jailhouse Journalism.


About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on
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