Trusted Sources: Why Mainstream Media Needs Incarcerated Voices

The Word from Solitary Watch for May 2024

by | May 13, 2024

After some time off, we are reviving “The Word from Solitary Watch,” our monthly series of dispatches by Solitary Watch staff and contributors.

The mainstream media has traditionally gotten most of its information about what goes on inside prisons from corrections officials—government employees who feed stories to journalists, aimed at protecting the institution’s image. Mainstream media’s failure to develop and employ not only incarcerated sources, but also incarcerated journalists as community-based reporters, represents a loss of an absolutely critical perspective. The result is that what happens in U.S. prisons is sanitized before it ever reaches the public.

Of course, there are exceptions—though still far too few. 

Hannah Wiley of the Los Angeles Times recently spoke to me about the importance of having incarcerated people being consulted, interviewed, and believed as sources for news stories. 

“Much of what we rely on as outside journalists covering these complex—but very much so human—stories comes from government entities or those without lived experience,” Wiley said. Having sources inside prison walls, including many who are journalists themselves, helps me more accurately and thoroughly tell these critical stories with voices of those most impacted by policy decisions.”

She added: “Being able to meet with and interview my incarcerated sources in-person has a direct impact on the power of my work. Many of the stories my sources trust me to tell come from time spent seeing where they live, how they spend their days and learning about the culture that makes up their communities, much like any other group of people.”

Emily Nonko, who co-directs Empowerment Avenue, a nonprofit that assists incarcerated writers and artists, takes things a step further, arguing for the vital work of incarcerated people as reporters of their own stories, and not only as sources. 

“If ‘prison’ were a U.S. city, it would be the fifth largest in the country,” Nonko said, referring to the 2 million people currently held in prisons and jails. “And yet we have very little reporting about what happens behind prison walls, and too few opportunities for incarcerated people to serve as the local reporter we so desperately need.” 

“Incarcerated people are best positioned and prepared to report about the conditions of U.S. prisons,” she added. Their reporting “has shined a light on carceral issues in a way no outside, non-impacted reporter could do.”

For 15 years, I worked as an editor and writer for the San Quentin News, a prisoner-produced, mission-driven publication that aims to give incarcerated readers restorative justice-based news—which in turn helps provide ways for them ways to navigate the Prison Industrial Complex, improve their lives, reconnect with family, and get out of prison in better shape than they were when they began their incarceration.

At the same time, during my tenure at SQ News, I did not hesitate to report on harsh prison conditions, or on the oppressive nature of prisons as well as their toxicity—a reality familiar to all incarcerated people.

“San Quentin is a community and every community needs a journalist to highlight what’s happening to the rest of the world,” said Steve Brooks, 52, who became editor in chief of SQ News in March 2023. Brooks is currently suspended from San Quentin’s media center, after being accused of “over familiarity” with a non-custody employee of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“I know that my job comes with great risks,” Brooks said. “The things I highlight in my community are not things that the powers that be want me talking about. But, despite those risks, in order to have a better community based on wellness—where people are treated like human beings—things that may make the powers that be feel uncomfortable must be talked about.”

Kate Wolffe, health care reporter at California’s CapRadio News (and former weekend editor/anchor at KQED) told me: “When I worked with journalists inside San Quentin, I noticed their professionalism and eagerness to report and learn. Some of my most interesting conversations about the purpose and utility of journalism happened in the SQ Media Lab with incarcerated journalists.”

While I have deep respect for many real world journalists, I, too, believe there are few reporters out there who are as intensely dedicated to their work as the incarcerated reporters I’ve encountered over the years. 

Since being named editor-in-chief of Solitary Watch, I’ve made it my goal to expand our support of incarcerated journalists who write about—and often from—the depths of solitary confinement, through our Ridgeway Reporting Project and our Voices from Solitary series.  

As I go about this work, I often think—as I believe nearly all journalists do these days—about the multiple challenges and threats to journalism (and by implication, our democracy) at the present moment: the demise of newsrooms and reporting jobs, the lack of trust in media, and the ebb of “news literacy” in an age of social media and fake news. 

All of these, it seems to me, call for us to turn to the most trustworthy and well-informed sources available when crafting our stories. When it comes to prisons and the criminal punishment system, at least, I know for sure exactly who those are. 

Juan Moreno Haines, Editor-in-Chief

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If you see the value in this piece, please help Solitary Watch continue our groundbreaking work to expose the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons and support the work of incarcerated writers—both on our own website and in high-profile progressive publications. Make a tax-deductible donation—large or small—to Solitary Watch today.

Juan Moreno Haines

Juan Moreno Haines is a senior contributing writer and editor at Solitary Watch, and senior editor at the award-winning San Quentin News. A member of the Society of Professional Journalists, he was awarded its Silver Heart Award for being “a voice for the voiceless.” His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Appeal, Hastings Race and Poverty Law Journal, Above the Law, UCLA Law Review, Life of the Law, The Oakland Post, LA Progressive, and CalMatters, among others. In 2020, he received the PEN Prison Writing Contest’s Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Fiction. He has been incarcerated in California for 26 years.

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