… freedom of the press … is an embodiment of freedom….Freedom is so much the essence of the human that even its opponents realize it … No human fights freedom; they fight at most the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, at another time as a universal right.
Encountering Prison Truth: The Story of the San Quentin News (University of California Press, 2020) I got very excited. From over 4 decades with News & Letters, and 25 years putting out independent women prisoners’ newsletter, The Fire Inside, I know just how important a newspaper can be to those who usually don’t have a voice and to prisoners in particular.
William J. Drummond, who authored Prison Truth (PT), was a Black journalist with LA Times in the 1960s-70s, a founding member of NPR’s Morning Edition, and is now a professor of journalism at UC Berkeley (UCB). PT documents his involvement with the San Quentin News (SQN).
Prof. Drummond is clear that the SQN‘s task is not investigative journalism. Because it is produced by prisoners while in prison, it has to reflect what the prison authorities will allow. Yet, he says, “For [the prisoners who became newsmen] journalism turned out to be … a path to personal redemption…. the act of writing and reporting on the world around them opened a way of constructing a narrative about their own lives.” (p. 5)
There is a whole section, 11 chapters, telling the amazing, transformational stories of prisoners working on the SQN. The book’s weakness is bypassing the rest of the California prison system, that author dubs “gladiator schools.” It leads Prof. Drummond to overstate the impact of SQN as what changed the narrative about prisoners and mass incarceration in the U.S.
Others transformed by their work with SQN were UCB journalism students. Many singled it out as a high point of their education, learning as one student put it “that all inmates were at one point just normal people. On reflection, the fact that this truth startled me or needed to be shown to me at all is shocking in itself.” (p. 162)
The seemingly obvious truth in PT is that prisoners are human beings. Yet prisoners’ humanity is not alone their individual transformation or “personal redemption” as a “human interest” story. PT does not mention at all the most transformative event I know from independently reporting on it first hand. The 2011-13 hunger strikes initiated at Pelican Bay State Prison’s “Security Housing Unit” (PB SHU) against the torture of solitary confinement had a dramatic impact on prisoners themselves, on prison policies and the narrative about prisoners in the media and in society. PB SHU appears only in the context of Oprah’s 2017 60 Minutes segment (pp. 232-236.) on her change from “lock em up” mentality to her showing some empathy with a prisoner.
In contrast Faruq, a PB SHU hunger striker who reported on the strikes as they were happening, said the conditions were so inhuman that the prisoners felt they had to talk to each other and work out something new, or their death would be meaningless. They would rather die asserting their humanity, demanding to be “validated” as human.*
In PB SHU hunger strikers individual stories manifested what is universal. The universal in human beings, our specific species character, is to be free, to be self-creating, self-determining in our everyday life relations with our kind. The most visible and the most consequential manifestation of the pull of this idea emerged not in San Quentin, but against California Department of Corrections and rehabilitation (CDCr, “r” as there is no rehabilitation) in PB.
The mass hunger strikes ended indeterminate solitary confinement. A prisoners’ representative, Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, said they “changed the face of race relations without any help from CDCr.” Based on their Agreement to End Hostilities (AEH), the strikes undermined gang-based identification of prisoners fomented by the prison authorities. The unique vision of cross-race solidarity practiced in the SHUs ignited new layers of prisoners, their families and other supporters to participate in the massive hunger strikes. CDCr admits that over 30,000 prisoners joined the 3rd strike in 2013. Major media finally highlighted the torture of solitary confinement. Yet for prisoners their achievement was experiencing the power of their own thought and activity, a new humanism, which awoke so many others in and out of prison.
When strikers were released from the SHUs, they started the Prisoner Human Rights Movement to re-create their experience under new conditions. Given CDCr’s abusive retaliation against the strikers, the Four Hunger Strike Representatives released a new (February 2020) statement, refocusing on the unique power of prisoners’ own voice: “Without prisoners speaking about our conditions of confinement, the public narrative about imprisonment and mass incarceration is missing a critical voice — our voice, the incarcerated.“**
Freedom of the press as allowed by CDCr, the “special privilege” the SQN enjoys, would not be able publish this statement, which is an on-going manifestation of freedom as human essence, as “a universal right.” As Baridi, one of the signers of the AEH, stressed recently, the lesson of human solidarity experienced during the hunger strikes is the path to realize a new world for everyone.
* For an independent account of the first hunger strike, see “Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers: We Want to be Validated as Human,” N&L, 2012.