The San Quentin News, though it started in 1940, has been publishing in its current iteration since 2008.

Photo by Emily Nonko

Incarcerated Men Write the Stories of Wall City

The award-winning San Quentin News has produced criminal-justice journalism for more than a decade. Now, their magazine reaches beyond prison walls to tell long-form stories of trauma, grace and healing.

Story by Emily Nonko

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To tell the story of Wall City — one of the few magazines in the country written, edited, photographed and produced by incarcerated journalists — you must begin with Arnulfo T. Garcia.

Some facts, to start. Garcia was born July 27th, 1952. He died at 65, on September 23rd, 2017, just two months and two days after earning his way out of a life sentence in prison.

The rest of his life story is complex. He battled addiction. He found solace on a farm in Mexico with his partner and their baby daughter. His crimes caught up to him and brought him back to the United States, and ultimately to San Quentin State Prison. His 65-year-to-life prison sentence was recalled in 2017, after serving 16 years. Somewhere in between, he earned the title jefe (chief), overseeing the prison’s newsroom.

To call Garcia simply jefe sells him short. Many hail him as a visionary — the man who, while incarcerated, built the San Quentin News into an essential voice covering criminal justice and mass incarceration, written entirely by those who live it. His death leaves a massive, aching hole and countless unfulfilled dreams.

Juan Moreno Haines, his close friend and colleague, often muses on two of those dreams. “He wanted to tell everybody’s story, to give everybody at San Quentin a pen and composition book, and we would publish it,” Haines says. “The other [dream] was he wanted to feed everyone on the entire yard.”

Arnulfo Garcia (left) and Juan Moreno Haines (right), in 2016. Photo by Eddie Herena

Garcia harbored another dream, which Haines feels compelled to carry on. It was that the San Quentin News, which has produced a monthly newspaper for the past decade, publish a quarterly long-form magazine, part of an ambitious effort to become a full-fledged news agency. Garcia saw the magazine as a crucial step on that path: speaking in a voice meant to be heard outside prison walls, in a medium that could dive deep into the complex stories born of mass incarceration.

Not everyone supported Garcia’s magazine dream, given the challenges of reporting inside prison. A shift from newspaper reporting would require new resources to train incarcerated reporters, editors, photojournalists and layout designers to produce long-form stories. How to secure the funding? How to publish the magazine? How to distribute to readers outside the walls?

But Garcia had a way of mobilizing support behind what he believed the newsroom needed to do. The first issue of Wall City was released in the spring of 2018 — after three years of work, and after Garcia had passed away. Garcia had written the opening editorial to introduce readers to his passion project: “The newspaper has offered an unprecedented opportunity for those of us interested in journalism to learn the basics, understand the work to be done and practice the craft,” he penned. “But now we’re eager to step beyond the world of newspaper, both in its word-length restrictions and constricted styles.”

“This magazine is a place for you to learn about people hardly ever seen and rarely heard of,” Garcia continued. “Truth-seeking and vulnerability are crucial elements not only in our creative process and our journalistic process but especially in our healing process … The only way to begin fruitful and honest conversations [about prison] is to take honest, fact-driven storytelling across prison walls.”

The Roots of the Prison Newsroom

The San Quentin News was founded in 1940 to address the problem of prison gossip. Today, it runs out of a library-turned-newsroom that has the energy and clutter of your typical media hub. The banner hanging above the men, working dutifully along a row of desktop computers, reads: “Written by Prisoners, Advocating Social Justice.” Haines keeps a photograph of Garcia nearby.

These men are part of a long history of United States prison journalism, one that’s changed alongside the country’s attitude toward criminal justice. According to the Nation, a single inmate founded the first prison newspaper, The Prison Mirror, in 1887 at Minnesota’s Stillwater Prison. Prison newspapers grew in the early decades of the twentieth century; by mid-century most states had at least one inmate-produced publication. A milestone came in 1974 when the Supreme Court upheld the rights of free speech for those incarcerated.

The cover of the first issue of Wall City, which released in spring 2018. Image courtesy of San Quentin News.

New policies and laws throughout the 1980s and 90s dramatically increased the prison population, as politicians amplified their “tough on crime” rhetoric. Mainstream media and journalism contributed to this environment of hysteria. A 1996 report by the National Criminal Justice Commission makes direct connections between distorted media images and crime reporting, growing public fears, and the rise in incarceration. The report details a media environment awash in hyper-violent images of criminals — often based on racist fears and stereotypes — despite the fact that crime had been on the decline.

At the same time, according to the Nation, “journalism behind bars nosedived.” The San Quentin News was the last prison paper in California before it went dark in the mid-1980s. Across the country, prison newspapers declined from a high of 250 in 1959 to less than a dozen by 2014. During this sharp contraction, the country’s prison population grew to nearly 2.3 million. The United States is now responsible for what is believed to be the largest prison population within the largest criminal justice system in all of human history.

A prison warden revived San Quentin News after a 26-year hiatus in 2008, around the same time Haines and Garcia transferred to the prison. In the beginning, a few men operated out of a small closet in the education department with almost no supplies or resources. Haines conducted interviews with Garcia as his partner; they made quite a pair — Haines is short and Garcia was tall, their faces each graced with a distinctive mustache.

Haines now has a reputation inside San Quentin for his interviewing style: attentive and trustworthy with subjects, persistent to the point of annoying in tracking stories down. But in the beginning, he simply asked questions while Garcia took detailed notes — no recorders allowed for prison journalists — down to a subject’s sneeze.

Within a few years of its resurgence, San Quentin News was breaking stories affecting California prison policy. A 2012 report exposed the state’s attempt to funnel away $68 million set aside for prison rehabilitative efforts. In the wake of the story, funds were directed back toward rehabilitation. As the Nation put it, “This is journalism that makes a difference in the quality of life for those behind bars, the kind of story that the mainstream media either don’t know about or don’t care about.”

The newspaper also tells stories of human things that happen inside San Quentin: graduations, athletic feats, comedy routines, self-help and rehabilitation. Eddie Herena, a photojournalist for the newspaper and for Wall City until he paroled last year, remembers his first encounter with the paper: being profiled after winning the San Quentin Marathon in 2010. Such reporting “is opposed to what everyone else thinks,” he says. “The public doesn’t know we’re going to college and graduating. The public doesn’t know about the individual who is an awesome guitar player. The public is really unaware of what takes place, just at San Quentin.”

Journalism as a Rehabilitative Tool

On a cool Sunday evening in early February, a group of volunteers and students led by Bill Drummond, a UC Berkeley journalism professor, makes the trek to the San Quentin newsroom in the prison’s lower yard. Visitors pass a succession of guards and gates, sign two guest books, and cannot wear anything revealing or blue (the color that distinguishes the men incarcerated).

Dinner at the chow hall is wrapping up, so visitors cross a mostly empty, quiet outdoor expanse that slopes downward to the prison education center. Inside the newsroom, men mingle and talk shop with their guests before settling into work. Issue #2 of Wall City will soon be ready for the printer, but Haines isn’t sure he’ll meet his end goal of Valentine’s Day. (“I got too thirsty,” he says.) Marcus Henderson leads the editorial meeting behind Issue #3; he is less a newsroom dreamer, more the man who figures out how the dreams come to fruition.

San Quentin News Editor-in-Chief Marcus Henderson, left, and Senior Editor Juan Haines, right. Photo by Jesse Vasquez.

Still, Issue #3 has special resonance for Henderson: he reports regularly on incarcerated women and advocated strongly for an all-women’s issue of Wall City, with female writers covering the experience of incarceration as a woman. During the editorial meeting, volunteers gently nudge Henderson into his leadership role, encouraging him to call the shots. At one point he shares a letter he received from a woman on California’s death row who disagreed with some of his reporting on a San Quentin News story about the matter. The criticism and communication, the group agrees, are welcome.

This collaboration — between the men inside and a revolving mix of advisors, volunteers, journalism professors and students — is essential to the production of the paper and magazine. It’s also antithetical to the setup of most U.S. prisons.

Mass incarceration sustains itself by keeping the public out and dehumanizing the people inside. During Garcia’s tenure as editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, he invited as many people as possible behind prison walls — district attorneys, victims, journalists and others — not only to work together but to begin healing conversations between inmates and the public that have long been avoided and discouraged.

It’s hard to understate how unique San Quentin is, how it facilitated Garcia’s dreams and allowed the newsroom to flourish. Unlike many U.S. prisons, built in remote locales that remove the incarcerated from their communities, San Quentin sits at the base of Marin County, an easy drive from Bay Area metropolitan centers. The prison administration has increasingly allowed volunteers to develop programs on the inside, such as yoga, self-help groups, coding classes and a popular podcast. (San Quentin boasts nearly as many volunteers as those incarcerated.) San Quentin’s public information officer, Lt. Sam Robinson, also chooses to support, not suppress, newsroom efforts.

This environment allows newsroom volunteers to assist with the reporting that happens inside. San Quentin journalists practice a throwback shoe-leather reporting style without internet or recorders, but volunteers bring in research material and educational tools. A Berkeley class led by Professor Drummond has brought students here since 2013.

A partnership between the men and outside volunteers also built the infrastructure that keeps the newsroom sustainable. Most men come to the newsroom with no journalism background. Those who gain the experience and move into leadership positions have paroled and left prison at a higher rate since a 2011 Supreme Court decision that ruled California’s high prison population unconstitutional. Five incarcerated staff members also received commutations from the previous governor, Jerry Brown.

To develop and maintain the leadership pipeline, for the past decade the newsroom has worked in tandem with San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, an Associated Press-based training program open to anyone incarcerated there. Not everyone who participates will become one of the 15 paid newsroom staff (who make 24 cents an hour), but guild members may still write for the paper. Guild training mirrors a Journalism 101 course: how to write lead sentences, properly cite quotes, attribute sources and interview subjects.

The reporting process can also launch, and deepen, the rehabilitation journey. “It makes you move your biases because you have to be fair when you’re a reporter,” says Henderson, who served as guild chairman before becoming San Quentin News editor-in-chief this April. “When you tell a story you have to step back to hear someone else’s point of view,” he says. “If you have some kind of thing against authority, you might have to give other people a voice even if you might not want to.”

SQN's Editor-in-Chief Marcus Henderson calls the Guild the “farm team” of the newspaper. This video is property of, and reproduced here with permission from, the San Quentin News.

In building the newsroom infrastructure, disagreements have arisen regarding what the paper should cover and how much authority the outside volunteers should hold. There have been administrative challenges: in 2014, the administration suspended the paper for 45 days for “circumventing the editorial process,” owing to the unauthorized use of a photo. Coincidentally, during that time the paper won the James Madison Freedom of Information Award “for accomplishing extraordinary journalism under extraordinary circumstances.”

The men are careful to discuss the built-in constraints of a prison newsroom. No topic is off-limits for coverage, but every story is reviewed by San Quentin’s Public Information Office and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “My publisher is the state,” Haines often points out. Journalists must strike a careful balance between their reporting and what the administration will approve, so the role of editor-in-chief requires diplomacy. As long as the content isn’t deemed unsafe for the men incarcerated or for the public outside — a topic that occasionally comes up for debate — stories are not censored.

Reaching an Audience Beyond the Walls

Garcia rose to newsroom leadership because he possessed a knack for transcending prison-imposed barriers. Every morning he ate breakfast with a diverse group of men who carved a space within the segregated chow hall. In the newsroom, he routinely brought in a facilitator and made the staff participate in healing circles. The newsroom healing circle is still convened after editorial board meetings.

When Garcia became editor-in-chief in 2011, his vision was to deliver the paper to all California state prisons. By 2013, the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business had collaborated with them on a plan to make that possible.

The so-called Haas Plan attracted new funders, because the state doesn’t pay for printing, distribution or website management. Grants and donations now support 30,000 monthly newspaper copies distributed to all 35 California state prisons.

San Quentin News was always geared toward incarcerated readers; Garcia envisioned Wall City as an intimate look inside prison for outside readers. He treated the memoir of Wilbert Rideau, former editor of the groundbreaking prison magazine The Angolite, as his Bible. A newsroom visit by Rideau convinced Garcia that publishing a magazine would push them to produce complex, human-centered storytelling that challenged preconceived notions of what it meant to be incarcerated.

Haines speaks of being a journalist as finding value in himself while confronting past traumas that derailed his life. “Being seen as a person people can trust, that’s huge for me,” he says. “I treat that like it’s a feather, like it’s delicate. I don’t want to disrupt that.”

Background image: San Quentin State Prison (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Wall City is funded by a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. (Note: Ford Foundation is a funder of Next City.) Each issue includes health and legal sections, plus a comic and crossword. Over the Wall, a recurring feature on the final page, profiles formerly incarcerated people and their reentry. Some stories are reminiscent of the newspaper, such as profiles of a yoga class and an environmental gardening program.

The magazine’s longer features offer an unparalleled look into the incarceration experience, as written by those who live it. Issue #1’s cover story, “Survivors of California Security House Unit speak,” profiles five men’s experience in solitary confinement. Another issue #1 feature, “The Men of GRIP,” takes readers inside the Guiding Rage Into Power self-help group, where men face their harm and impact on their victims to begin the process of accountability and healing.

Haines wrote the GRIP story; it opens with the crime of Javier Perez Trujillo, who accidentally shot and killed his sister during a family argument. Haines follows Trujillo’s decision to speak about that day for the first time and begin to process the devastation that his crime caused. A sidebar notes that 63 GRIP graduates have left prison, and none have reoffended. That’s not just a public-safety benefit, but a tax-dollar savings of about $4 million a year, considering it costs $75,000 per year to incarcerate one person.

Haines oversaw Issue #2; it took a year to produce its 32 pages. Through April he worked through last-minute kinks, including a change to the cover story and a three-day prison lockdown. After proofing the galleys and sending it through administrative review, Wall City finally went to press at the end of the month.

“To give you the emotions of someone who’s incarcerated, who’s [also] publishing a magazine,” Haines says, “I feel good. I feel like we did something that no other journalist is capable of doing.”

Telling Stories That Confront Trauma and Facilitate Healing

Magazine reporting has its own stylistic demands and layout concerns. But this particular journalistic form also asks a writer to invest intensely in the reporting, in telling a subject’s story. “We have to push them to report harder,” says Doug Levy, a journalist volunteering with Wall City. “Not necessarily aggressively — they have to get more facts, they have to know their stories better than before, and be confident in their own knowledge.”

Levy notes this style of reporting can be at odds with the rules of prison. “These are people who have been living in a 24/7 rigid, structured environment,” he says. “They have a lot of rules to follow, and they’re used to following the rules. When somebody like me comes along and says, ‘Okay, throw that rule away,’ it’s a hard change.”

Breaking out of a newspaper structure means incarcerated journalists often delve into stories of trauma, of confronting the repercussions of a crime. Magazine writing works to humanize people enmeshed in a system engineered to dehumanize them. Haines believes that’s a powerful shift.

In Issue #2, writer Wayne Boatwright profiles Curtis Roberts, who was raped during his time in prison. “Curtis wanted his story told,” Haines says. “He wanted to have control of how he talked about what happened. That’s an opportunity with Wall City, to give Curtis that. And there are literally hundreds of stories like that, inside San Quentin, to bring up relevant social issues that are hyper amplified inside prison because of how we’re living.”

While the magazine doesn’t shy away from trauma — one feature in Issue #2 covers suicide in prison — it’s also a platform to offer solutions at a time when the public increasingly questions the effectiveness of mass incarceration to rehabilitate inmates and increase public safety. Another Issue #2 story concerns restorative justice inside San Quentin, where men who committed violent crimes facilitate restorative justice circles to help bring healing to crime survivors.

And then there are the human stories that resist preconceived notions of prison. Joe Garcia, a more recent addition to the newsroom, came into San Quentin with his own fears and assumptions toward prison life, which he says were heavily influenced by media.

His first story for Wall City will be about cellmates (known as cellies) who have fallen in love. He describes a man in his late 30s, “a straight hardened prisoner,” and an openly gay man in his 20s who walk the yard as a couple, unique in a setting not typically receptive to the LGBTQ community.

The story “is not just about them,” Joe Garcia adds. “It’s about this confusion between the [rest of the] prison population and the LGBTQ population. It gives us a route into accepting the other guy. It’s an example of a story that an outside writer really can’t get.”

Newsroom members from left: Joe Garcia, Kevin D. Sawyer and David Ditto. Photo by Emily Nonko.

Joe Garcia recounts a prison experience that’s stuck with him, walking through the waiting room of an Oakland hospital in shackles and an orange jumpsuit and catching his reflection in the window. “I know who I am, but when I walk around in cuffs, someone who doesn’t know this life puts you in a box,” he says. “I like to do stories to elevate that image.”

Leaving aside the subjects of Wall City stories, the art of practicing journalism is transformational for journalists themselves. For Henderson, it was initially about reclaiming something he felt he had lost: “As a kid, I always wanted to do my own magazine. This was one of my childhood dreams,” he says. Today, as editor-in-chief, he has a sense of participating in history. And in the American history of mass incarceration, he wants to elevate the experiences of those living through it. “We might be considered society’s misfits, but we’re actually society’s failures,” he says. “Hearing our voices, you can hear where we were failed.”

Haines speaks of being a journalist as finding value in himself while confronting past traumas that derailed his life. “Being seen as a person people can trust, that’s huge for me,” he says. “I treat that like it’s a feather, like it’s delicate. I don’t want to disrupt that, because that’s not always been Juan Moreno Haines.”

Volunteers, too, consider the work meaningful, if not life-changing. UC Berkeley student Brenna Smith decided to write her honors thesis on prison journalism as a rehabilitative tool while participating in Drummond’s class. Drummond, who has a long and accomplished journalism career, has said the work brought back his faith in the industry.

Molly Kittle became a volunteer last year and joined the newsroom to assist the women’s issue of Wall City. “There’s been a lot of learning about sourcing from a population that’s really hard to get to and trying any creative means we can,” she says of the reporting challenges. It’s been grounded in Henderson’s “sensitivity and clarity around women’s voices being heard.”

In this work, Kittle came to see storytelling as a powerful tool for people to connect beyond prison walls. “We need to be in there,” she says of the outside public. “Once you see, and feel, what it’s like to work in that environment, you can’t turn away.”

“A story happens when one person stands up and is vulnerable enough to speak the truth, and someone else is brave enough to stand in the face of that truth and hear all of it,” Kittle says. “The story happens in the space between those two people. I see it play out time and time again in the work I do at San Quentin.”

A New Life Cut Short

Eventually, after my newsroom visits, the letters and 15-minute prepaid telephone conversations, the inevitable emerged: it was my turn to tell a story about the San Quentin journalists.

One of my final interviews was over the phone with Lisa Adams, the only paid non-incarcerated employee of the San Quentin News. The Haas Plan identified the need to create a nonprofit to help the newsroom achieve its goals. This led to the creation of Friends of the San Quentin News, an entity sponsored by the Social Good Fund. Adams was hired in 2017 as the development manager.

Despite some concern that Adams’ fundraising experience wasn’t as strong as that of other candidates, she had been previously incarcerated and experienced a successful transition into freedom. Garcia believed she deeply understood the newsroom’s mission. She started the job just as Garcia began his life outside prison. He called her almost daily. “The man was on fire with visions, ideas, plans, outlines, methods,” Adams recalls.

Arnulfo Garcia relaxes at San Quentin's 2017 Day of Peace, an annual event that celebrates the spirit of rehabilitation. Photo by Eddie Herena.

After two months outside prison, Garcia invited Adams and her wife to his sister’s home in Los Banos so he could introduce them to his family. The couple arrived at the home, expecting a barbeque, but no one answered the door. They waited for more than two hours, while Adams’ confusion grew. Garcia was always prompt, and had come to love using his cellphone. She never heard from him and he never showed. Police reports indicate Garcia’s sister, who was driving, ran a stop sign and collided with two vehicles in the intersection. Both Garcia and his sister died at the scene.

As Adams and her wife waited at the house, two policemen arrived looking for members of Garcia’s family. “I could tell what kind of call it was,” Adams says. I ask Adams what that moment felt like when she found out he had been killed. Her voice strains. “I’m still feeling it, right now, as we talk about it,” she says. “He was such an incredible human being.” After the stories so many had told me about Arnulfo T. Garcia, I felt it too. And on the other side of the phone, I quietly began to cry.

If I could tell any kind of story about Wall City, it would be about the space Garcia left behind, the intellectual and emotional space from which the San Quentin newsroom now grows.

Friends of the San Quentin News secured significant funding from the Reva and David Logan Foundation for the men to develop a strategic plan that encompasses the newspaper and all new initiatives, including Wall City. Unlike the Haas Plan, a process heavily led by Berkeley students, the newsroom staff has taken the lead.

“This has been a monster undertaking that is helping the men to existentially further define themselves as a news agency, rather than as a newspaper,” Adams says. “The men are writing a section on goals, objectives, outcome variables, funding, future for each news area … they are defining themselves.”

Their goals include maintaining Wall City as a quarterly, investing in multimedia training and storytelling, and expanding the Journalism Guild to teach magazine reporting. The newsroom will also increase Spanish-language content (another guild class for Spanish-speaking inmates, La Raza Voices, was added last year) as well as social media and public relations efforts.

Garcia always understood the capacity of San Quentin News to be a news agency and envisioned a companion newsroom outside prison walls. The creation of an outside office — led by newsroom staff who left prison — is a crucial component of the new strategic plan.

Adams is thoughtful about how prison can facilitate such growth and passion, particularly when resources are offered to those incarcerated. “When I was in prison, what I found was that we had no sense of what couldn’t be done,” she says. “You go back to your cell and all you do is think about your ideas. The conditions are so horrible, so your mind becomes bigger.”

A prison houses stories of trauma, shame and violence, right alongside those of love, hope, grace and healing. When the story is often about the worst moment of your life, the San Quentin newsroom offers a voice to tell what happens next. These stories don’t belong behind a wall. These stories belong to all of us.

“We’re a part of you,” Haines tells me over the din of the newsroom. Our time is running short; soon I will walk across the yard and out the gate and he will return to the top bunk of his cell. “We’re not any different,” he continues, “We’re just put away in a place that means you have to do different things to see us. And our job, as prison journalists, is to open that door for you a little bit.”

Travel for this story was funded by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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