Incarcerated reporters get more bylines

“Our media industry, which is largely white and non-impacted by the system, has long underestimated and/or ignored people behind prison walls.”

I’m an organizer with Empowerment Avenue, a program started at San Quentin State Prison to help incarcerated writers and journalists (who don’t have access to internet or email) get their work outside prison walls, get published, and paid for it. We began in 2020, seeing what would happen if we paired editors and writers on the outside with incarcerated writers, to help them build their writing careers. 2022 marked exciting new territory for the program: We began supporting incarcerated writers pursue investigative reporting from inside prison.

As you might imagine, this isn’t easy work — incarcerated writers don’t have access to many research tools or materials and they’re investigating a system designed to hide its oppressions from the outside world. Incarcerated journalists take tremendous risk to do this work. But this year, with support from Type Investigations, journalist Juan Haines published a story about being punished for getting sick at San Quentin Prison. Felix Sitthivong partnered with outside reporter Sam Levin to expose medical negligence at his Washington facility.

These early stories have shown what’s possible, and with continued support from Type Investigations there will be many more investigative pieces to come in 2023. Next year, I hope to see the prominence rise of incarcerated reporters, the best people to report on mass incarceration in the United States. Our media industry, which is largely white and non-impacted by the system, has long underestimated and/or ignored people behind prison walls. 2023 will be the year that incarcerated reporters will be increasingly centered, celebrated, and protected, in a larger effort to rebuild our industry to be truly representative and diverse.

Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn.

I’m an organizer with Empowerment Avenue, a program started at San Quentin State Prison to help incarcerated writers and journalists (who don’t have access to internet or email) get their work outside prison walls, get published, and paid for it. We began in 2020, seeing what would happen if we paired editors and writers on the outside with incarcerated writers, to help them build their writing careers. 2022 marked exciting new territory for the program: We began supporting incarcerated writers pursue investigative reporting from inside prison.

As you might imagine, this isn’t easy work — incarcerated writers don’t have access to many research tools or materials and they’re investigating a system designed to hide its oppressions from the outside world. Incarcerated journalists take tremendous risk to do this work. But this year, with support from Type Investigations, journalist Juan Haines published a story about being punished for getting sick at San Quentin Prison. Felix Sitthivong partnered with outside reporter Sam Levin to expose medical negligence at his Washington facility.

These early stories have shown what’s possible, and with continued support from Type Investigations there will be many more investigative pieces to come in 2023. Next year, I hope to see the prominence rise of incarcerated reporters, the best people to report on mass incarceration in the United States. Our media industry, which is largely white and non-impacted by the system, has long underestimated and/or ignored people behind prison walls. 2023 will be the year that incarcerated reporters will be increasingly centered, celebrated, and protected, in a larger effort to rebuild our industry to be truly representative and diverse.

Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn.

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