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Notebook Media

Inmates for the press

(Sharon Dierberger)

Media

Inmates for the press

For 133 years, The Prison Mirror has provided Minnesota prisoners a place for creativity, learning, and inspiration

Inside an office room in Bayport, three men in jeans and casual shirts swivel on rolling orange chairs, conferring with each other, answering questions, and occasionally turning back toward large computer screens. Books and periodicals surround them. Upbeat music plays softly in the background.

Outside the office, barred doors, massive exterior walls, and guard towers reveal its surprising location: the inside of a maximum security prison. 

The three men are inmates. Still, they love their work: Once a month, they churn out The Prison Mirror, begun in 1887. It is the oldest continually running newspaper in the United States written, edited, and published by inmates, for inmates.

Here in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, aka Stillwater State Prison, the paper’s senior editor, L. Maurice Martin, and co-editors Jeffery Young and Ronald Greer are each 42 years old and serving life sentences for murder. They say writing the newspaper provides them an outlet for creativity, learning, and inspiring others.

Martin calls the paper “a source of light” for the prison’s approximately 1,500 inmates, whose average sentence is almost 10 years. “Prison can be overwhelming and discouraging,” he says. The editors want to “help others see opportunities [for improvement] … and deal with real issues.”

Editions of The Prison Mirror feature headlines like “Character First!” and “Angry Man Says … ” (a column about controlling temper). “The Laws of Attraction” is a monthly column giving relationship advice. 

Investigative stories cover topics like prison food and water quality. Editors critique prison policies and cover prison events, classes, graduations, and sports. They insert inspirational quotes such as “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in” or “Education is the key to success.”

Prison officials do not allow Martin, Young, and Greer unfettered internet access. To do research, the editors must search the prison library card catalog to locate shelved books or use encyclopedias. Writing snail mail to request an interview or other information may never bring a reply. The men just shrug. Getting anything done here is slow.

A recent issue explored the problem of prisoner assaults on staff members. The editors interviewed inmates willing to say why they’d attacked corrections officers in the past, and the resulting article described what might provoke a prisoner to violence. It’s an especially relevant topic: In July 2018 an inmate attacked and killed a corrections officer with a hammer in the prison’s workroom. Young says both staff and inmates gave surprisingly positive feedback on the Mirror story.

Associate warden Victor Wanchena says such stories encourage understanding and empathy between staff and inmates. He notes the writer-editors carry the burden of trying to handle difficult topics judiciously: “We try to give them lots of leeway but want them to be fair and use named sources.”

The paper is also a platform for lighter topics, such as personal writing and artwork. One issue’s back page shows a charcoal portrait with haunting eyes, a recent inmate submission. Occasionally a chaplain contributes, though the paper takes a neutral stand on religion.

Sharon Dierberger

Greer, Young, and Martin work on an issue of The Prison Mirror. (Sharon Dierberger)

Almost 133 years ago, outlaw brothers Cole, Robert, and Jim Younger helped found the Mirror while serving life sentences. Eleven years earlier, as members of the infamous (Jesse) James-Younger gang, they’d botched a bank robbery in Northfield, and the state held them additionally responsible for the shooting death of a cashier. 

By their third issue, the brothers chose the paper’s motto: “It is never too late to mend!” The front page of each edition still carries it.

Several past writers for the paper went on to publish books after leaving prison, including Frank Elli, author of The Riot, published in 1966 and made into a movie.

Editing the paper brings perks, such as the quiet, air-conditioned office. By contrast, concrete cell blocks get hot and noisy: Walking down a tiled main corridor through sets of locked steel doors and past a dozen alert guards, I heard chatter, calls, and clanging from the two side hallways where prisoners reside.

The editors enjoy the privilege of covering events other inmates may not have access to, like a recent Minnesota legislative hearing that was the first in the nation to occur in a prison. Mostly, they’re glad to have a positive purpose. 

Our ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism … potentially one less victim, one less crime.

Before the 16-page, 8-by-11-inch paper goes to print, five Stillwater Prison officials must sign off. They correct spelling and grammar and may send stories back for fact-checking or additional sources. They’ll flag a picture if it shows a gang sign or an article that uses obscenities.

Rarely do officials nix a story, but Young recalls when they vetoed one about a criminal justice reform organization they considered too radical. The editors seem resigned to the decision, though prison reform remains a hot topic in the Mirror. They banter with Wanchena about wanting to start a podcast like San Quentin has.

When the paper comes out, inmates eagerly look for their photo or contributions. They often pass editions on to friends and family. Law libraries, criminal justice reform organizations, interested citizens, and other prisons from around the country buy about 350 subscriptions per year at $24 each. Money from subscriptions, the inmate phone system, and the prison canteen fully funds the paper. Editors earn $1.50 an hour and work 40-50 hours a week.

Wanchena believes the newspaper has a positive impact on prison morale and lives: “Our ultimate goal is to reduce recidivism … potentially one less victim, one less crime.”

Just before the warden directs the three editors back to cell blocks for inmate head counts, Young grows somber, saying outsiders often forget about inmates: “They only remember … this monster who committed a crime.” He hopes they’ll learn many are getting educated, trying to prepare to return home, trying to mend.

That hope, he says, keeps him writing.