Breaking news from inside: How prisons suppress prison journalism
Building on data from the Prison Journalism Project, we find that most states enforce restrictions that make practicing journalism extremely difficult and sometimes risky.
by Brian Nam-Sonenstein, June 15, 2023
Last month, New York prison officials introduced a policy to effectively suppress prison journalism. It went unnoticed for a few weeks until reporters at New York Focus caught wind of it. A righteous backlash ensued, forcing the department to rescind the policy for the time being.
The incident left many people wondering: how common are restrictions on prison journalism? Building on data compiled by the Prison Journalism Project, we scoured handbooks, prison policies, and laws governing every corrections department in the U.S. to try and find out.
We found that while explicit bans on prison journalism are rare, a web of complex and vague policies make the practice extremely difficult and sometimes risky.
Prisons don’t want you to know what happens inside. That’s what makes prison journalism so important. As more news outlets publish incarcerated journalists, more departments will consider policies to control what information makes it out into the world.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons is the only agency we found that explicitly forbids any incarcerated person from acting “as a reporter.” But they are not alone in suppressing prison journalism.
For starters, the standard prison practice of censoring and surveilling snail mail, electronic messages, phone calls, and video visits violates basic principles of free expression and privacy. These principles are central to a journalist’s ability to maintain sources, work closely with editors, and report the news without interference. Only 4 states — Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas — treat correspondence with the news media as “privileged communication,” meaning that letters between an incarcerated person and a media outlet cannot be opened or read by prison staff (although they may be searched in the presence of the incarcerated person for contraband).
However, the other 46 states and the federal government maintain the right to read and censor communications with the media. These policies are broadly explained as important to maintaining “security and order” — a vague justification left to the discretion of prison officials.
Other aspects of prison life, such as an incarcerated person’s limited ability to maintain property1, can also conflict with the practice of journalism. Papers, notes, books, and other materials that can be important to reporting are vulnerable to confiscation and destruction by prison officials during cell searches and transfers. Additionally, a lack of access to the internet and heavily restricted use of tablets and computers can make researching, writing, and editing much more difficult for journalists on the inside.
Prohibitions on business and compensation
Fourteen states prohibit imprisoned people from operating or engaging in a business, including being self employed, and from receiving compensation for their work. Even if an incarcerated person were to produce journalism for free, vague restrictions on ‘business activities’ are enough to threaten their work with media outlets.
Most incarcerated people are only allowed to work in jobs that support prison operations, prison-approved work release programs, or prison industries. But 19 states allow people to work with outside businesses and organizations if they receive approval from the prison. In some rare cases, they may receive compensation for written work3 or publish writing so long as it is not a regular column.4
Prison journalism is essential work
For as long as there have been prisons, the public has benefited greatly from the work of incarcerated journalists and sources. Much of what is known about incarceration comes from people who have been on the inside and have told their stories at great personal risk.
Incarcerated journalists still face discrimination and rejection from media outlets, but there are some signs of change. Over the last decade, a growing movement of incarcerated journalists — some working with organizations like the Prison Journalism Project and Empowerment Avenue, others with prison newspapers like the San Quentin News — have had their work published. This work is often used in countless investigations, lawsuits, policy reforms, and organizing efforts. This is great news for transparency, accountability, and change. Importantly, it also helps people build relationships and skill sets that can support them once they are released.
There are too many examples of excellent prison journalism to cite, but some examples include:
- “The Brutal Reality of Life in America’s Most Notorious Jail” by John J. Lennon in The Atlantic
- “At San Quentin, the Response to COVID-19 Brings More Isolation and Suffering to People with Mental Illness” by Juan Moreno Haines in Solitary Watch
- “What It’s Like to be Trapped in a Women’s Prison During a Pandemic” by Michele Scott in Elle Magazine
- “‘I don’t have the funds’: a diabetic prisoner pleaded for insulin supplies before his death” by Felix Sitthivong in The Guardian
- “As a Woman In a Men’s Prison, This Is the Transphobia I Face Daily” by Jessica Phoenix Sylvia and Christopher Blackwell in Them
New York’s anti-journalism policy is gone for now, but may return in a different form in the future. In response to media requests, the department said it will “engage [interested] stakeholders to revise the policy in order to encourage creative art projects, as originally intended.”
In the meantime, it must be said that the benefits of prison journalism are profound and the risks are few, and mostly confined to the system itself. Other states are likely watching what has unfolded in New York, and so a rigorous defense of prison journalism is required. Protecting and expanding prison journalism requires special considerations for incarcerated media workers. It also merits a critical examination of ordinary policies that shape prison life.
Prison journalism affirms some of our most basic democratic principles — the exercise of speech free from government influence — and is an essential check on the extreme power these institutions wield over life and death. It’s also a potent reminder of the agency and desires of incarcerated people, which are so easily dismissed because they are often largely out of view.
Most prisons have policies limiting the number and type of items an incarcerated person is allowed to keep. For example, according to policies set by the Bureau of Prisons, “Authorized personal property may be subject to numerical limitations” and, if a person is transferred, their property may be moved with them “at the discretion of the sending and receiving institutions’ Wardens.” Pennsylvania prison policies dictate that “limitations on the amount and variety of inmate property may be imposed for security,
hygiene, and/or safety reasons.” In the event of a transfer, PADOC policy explains that “An inmate may not exceed the property limits established by the Department. Excess property, as determined by the Facility Manager/designee, may be shipped out at the inmate’s expense or destroyed.”
According to research by Emily Chiang, in the Turner case, “Justices Stevens, Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun dissented, arguing that “if the standard can be satisfied by nothing more than a ‘logical connection’ between the [policy] and any legitimate penological concern perceived by a cautious [administrator,] it is virtually meaningless.” They cautioned that “[a]pplication of the standard would seem to permit disregard for inmates’ constitutional rights whenever the imagination of the [administrator] produce[d] a plausible security concern.” ↩
In Oregon, incarcerated people have an explicit right to publish, copyright, and be compensated for written work. However, “equipment, supplies, and other resources that are the property of the State of Oregon cannot be utilized in the production of items offered for sale or other disposition by the inmate.” A separate mail policy states that incarcerated people “shall not conduct business transactions by mail without the prior written consent of the functional unit manager or designee.” ↩