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Sharon Dierberger

(Sharon Dierberger)

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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.

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Ligonier Ministries/YouTube

Derek W.H. Thomas (Ligonier Ministries/YouTube)

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A matter of attribution

Publisher withdraws Derek Thomas’ Acts commentary due to plagiarism 

In 2017, WORLD named as its “Series of the Year” the Reformed Expository Commentary from P&R Publishing. Various Reformed pastor-scholars authored the volumes in the series, drawing from their own sermons, and P&R plans for the series eventually to cover every book of the Bible. We praised it because we found that good editing brought out the best in the sermons without being too academic.

P&R has now withdrawn from publication the series’ commentary on the book of Acts, written by Derek W.H. Thomas, the senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, S.C, part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Thomas, 66, is also a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) in Atlanta, a teacher at Ligonier Ministries, and author of more than a dozen books.

Last October an anonymous source sent research to P&R showing Thomas’ commentary had many instances of plagiarism. The Acts commentary was based on Thomas’ sermons, which contained some word-for-word plagiarism from talks by theologian Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson preceded Thomas as senior minister at First Presbyterian, and the two are friends.

P&R, which investigated and confirmed the plagiarism, said in a statement the problem was a result of “unclear note-taking more than a decade before the commentary on Acts was written, and we believe it does not reflect intentional misuse on the part of the author.” 

P&R Vice President Ian Thompson elaborated: He said that as soon as P&R had informed Thomas of the plagiarism charge and sent him documents for a response, Thomas “immediately called back and said he did not at that time know how it had happened but that he would comply with anything that we did—in effect he threw himself on our mercy. We were impressed by the humility and contrition expressed by Derek in response to our enquiries.” Still, because of the plagiarism, the publisher removed the book from print.

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Shonna Slayton (Handout)

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Bootstrap publishing

Authors have to wear many hats to publish their own books

Maintain social media platforms. Arrange public events. Attend conferences. Purchase paid advertising. Manage cash flow. Analyze data. Spot trends.

If that doesn’t sound like the job requirement for an author, think again. All authors have to do some marketing, but for self-publishers it’s crucial.

Shonna Slayton is one such author. She’s a homeschooling Christian mom and author of Spindle, plus other novels in the genre she calls “historical fairy tales.” After using a boutique publisher for her first three books, she’s now self-publishing through Amazon and Ingram. Slayton has learned that success in her writing “side-hustle” requires her to be both businessperson and writer.

Self-publishing isn’t a new concept. After failing to find a publisher for The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter self-published in 1901. The next year a publisher that had originally rejected it picked up the story. Today Potter’s books sell more than 2 million copies each year. In 1931, Irma Rombauer and her daughter put together the illustrated cookbook The Joy of Cooking. Five years later Bobbs-Merrill Co. acquired the rights, eventually selling more than 18 million copies.

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