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Ambitious Plan for a Captive Readership: Berkeley MBA Students Advise Inmate Newspaper

April 29, 2014
by Katherine Seligman

It was an early fall day when the gates of San Quentin State Prison clanged shut behind the unusual team of consultants on its way to meet the equally unusual team of clients.

“I was apprehensive,” admits Laura Tilghman, an MBA student at UC Berkeley who had never stepped into a prison before. “It was such different circumstances and territory.”

The clients, most of them serving life sentences, didn’t know what to expect either. Why would students from one of the top business schools in the state want to visit inmates at the state’s oldest prison?

They were there to do what MBA students are trained to do: create a business plan—in this case for the inmate staff of the San Quentin News, the only inmate produced paper in California and one of few in the world.

It would be daunting. To begin with, the inmate journalists are not allowed to use the Internet, make unmonitored phone calls or sell ads and subscriptions. Then there is the general gloomy forecast for print journalism. Many newspapers across the country are shrinking.

Despite the obstacles, the students from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and their advisors worked with the inmates to produce a 57-page, 12-year plan to expand circulation from the current 11,500 to 122,000, reaching lawmakers, parolees and inmate families, as well as every prisoner in California.

It’s too early to tell if the plan, presented in December, will succeed, but there is no doubt about the drive to make it happen.

A few months after the plan was presented, the Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists honored the paper for “accomplishing journalism under extraordinary circumstances.” It praised the staff and volunteers for writing about a hunger strike, overcrowding and an unsuccessful request for compassionate release of a dying inmate, stories obtained “under scrutiny of prison authorities.”

“We are a bunch of ragtag guys putting out a paper. Who’d have thought?” says JulianGlenn Padgett, a staffer who worked on a story about the request for compassionate release. “We are, without a doubt, journalists.”

Photo of the San Quentin News staff on the paper’s web site

The newspaper staff of 15 writers, editors and designers meets six days a week in a small trailer. While many of the men take other academic or rehabilitation classes, a core spends up to 12 hours a day there. In many ways the office resembles a mainstream newsroom—books, papers and unopened mail stacked in the corners, less than ideal light, a TV on in the background, computer terminals scattered throughout.  What it doesn’t have are fancy electronics, cell phones or omnipresent junk food.

William Drummond, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, was impressed with the staff’s potential when he began teaching a class at San Quentin several years ago. A former reporter for the Los Angeles Times who wrote about prisons, he thought they could get at stories in a way the outside media, in a time of constricting budgets, did not.

“They have this unique position,” he says. “They literally have a captive audience…What they hope to do, it’s ambitious. If you look around there are no real outlets for the effects of incarceration that come from actual prisoners serving real time.”

The paper, founded in 1940, had floundered, periodically shuttered and hampered by lockdowns, until it re-emerged in 2008 as a serious endeavor, attempting to cover local prison news as well as national prison issues.

But staff was poorly trained and some members lacked basic literacy skills. A Journalism Guild was started to teach them what they needed to put out a paper. Drummond brought in journalism students from Berkeley to help teach and mentor. The paper now has five outside journalism advisors, including Drummond, who acts as an unofficial advisor. One, former Pacific Sun publisher Steve McNamara, established a nonprofit foundation to support the publication.

“I walked in hav­ing cer­tain ex­pect­a­tions for what it would like to in­ter­act with someone in pris­on. They blew me away.”

About a year ago, editors of the paper came to Drummond, asking for advice on how to expand. He contacted Nora Silver, director of the business school’s Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership. The center’s class in social sector solutions works with nonprofits like the Global Fund for Women, Travel to Change and the YMCA. There had never been a prison among the clients.

“You could do a lot of projects,” says Silver, “but this one has an opportunity to give prisoners a voice.”

In truth, not all the students assigned to the project requested it as a first choice. Initially, they were wary. There were rules for what not to wear—anything denim or a host of colors associated with gang membership, anything revealing or tight—and how to act. Although the students had sent their resumes to inmates, they weren’t sure how much personal information to reveal or ask.

“I walked in having certain expectations for what it would like to interact with someone in prison,” says Shilpa Grover, a public policy graduate student who was on the team and wants to volunteer as a teacher at the prison after she graduates. “They blew me away. They cared so deeply about the paper….The lasting impression is how passionate they are.”

At one of the first meetings, students and staff gathered for introductions. Staff members mentioned personal details, where they came from, family background and, in what surprised some students, the crimes that brought them to San Quentin.

“We asked them, ‘What are you excited about and what are you nervous about?’ “says Tilghman. “They were excited to have partners. They said they were scared we were going to judge them and think badly of them because they are prisoners. Having that dialogue cleared the air. It was pretty remarkable.”

Arnulfo Garcia, the editor in chief, says being open and taking responsibility for past actions is part of recovery and rehabilitation. But once the men are inside the newsroom, they leave prison conflicts and tension outside.

“I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t write,” says Watani Stiner, who is serving time for involvement in a shootout at UCLA in 1968 and was part of a famous escape from San Quentin. He lived in Guyana and Suriname for 20 years before turning himself in. He now writes a column for the paper called “OG,” for Old Guard, and often finds himself giving advice to younger inmates.

“I used to be anti-journalist,” says Juan Haines, the managing editor, who gained his college education in prison. “I was a big fan of Noam Chomsky and Democracy Now. I paid attention to how prisoners were covered in the press. Reporters weren’t coming into prisons to talk to inmates.”

Now Haines spends all day writing, editing and analyzing studies. All outside newspaper stories and reports have to be brought in by outside advisors, who are authorized to carry small zip drives. The outside advisors also must handle the paper’s website, given that prisoners lack Internet access. Prison administrators review the content and may ask for changes, but the paper’s staff purposely stays away from stories that might incite violence or are considered, as one inmate put it, too “woe is me.”​

The business school team met with the staff regularly, gathering information about goals and priorities. It was, in many ways, what they would do for any client, but involved meetings in a medium security prison that had to be arranged well in advance. A mid-term presentation had to be delayed because of a lockdown.

But both sides listened intently and developed a close rapport. The inmates learned some of the business vocabulary. The business students learned that the inmates were complicated individuals not easy to stereotype, who had struggled with hardships they never experienced.

They investigated how the paper could be marketed and branded. Searching for comparable papers, the students studied an Amish publication, which also targeted an insular population that does not rely on the Internet. They discussed how to reach new readers, how to describe the paper differently for varying groups of potential subscribers or donors. To make the plan work, inmates would need to increase the budget to more than a half million dollars a year, up from about $25,000.

“The students can be creative and think out of the box,” says Silver. “Prisoners don’t have online access and distribution is hard. Getting the papers to a prison is an issue. And then where do they go once they are in? How do they get to prisoners? The prisoners can’t handle money.”

At the final presentation, consultants and clients gathered in a conference room. There were cookies, a rare treat provided by the inmates. The report, replete with charts and graphs, was presented on paper, the old fashioned way.

“It reflects what we want to do,” says managing editor Haines. “It’s a challenge but I think it can be done. If we’re not producing relevant content, then I need another job.”

A recent issue contains 24 pages of news, features, reviews and opinions. There are stories on overcrowding and the retirement of a local officer. In a tribute to how close clients and consultants grew, there is a picture of Berkeley team leader Jon Spurlock’s newborn son.

“It’s unlikely they will end up executing the plan as written, given the nature of their environment,” says Spurlock, who like many students plans to stay in touch with the paper’s inmate staff. “If it takes 15 years, that’s still pretty good. Our plan gives them a framework. What are the issues, the milestones, the path that gets them there is anyone’s guess.”

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