Review: ‘Prison Truth’ takes readers inside San Quentin’s inmate-run newspaper
California operated just eight prisons for men in 1970, when William J. Drummond, a pioneering young African American investigative journalist at the Los Angeles Times, published a groundbreaking piece on racial tensions behind bars. Days earlier, a shootout at the Marin County courthouse had left four people dead, sending the FBI on a manhunt for activist Angela Y. Davis and spurring what became a nationwide boom in mass incarceration.
By 2016, California housed 160,000 inmates at 35 prisons — many of them a major source of employment for small towns in the Central Valley. By 2018, California had more prison guards than it had prisoners in 1970.
Drummond, now a UC Berkeley professor, is still on the prison beat. Since 2012, he has been an adviser to the San Quentin News, a newspaper published by inmates at California’s oldest prison and the subject of his new book, “Prison Truth.”
The book chronicles Drummond’s past, along with the remarkable efforts by San Quentin Prison inmates to document their circumstances — and in so doing, achieve rehabilitation through introspection and expression.
Glenn Bailey, after five decades imprisoned for a double murder in Oakland, created a play, “Lifer,” about his experiences. Juan Haines, a bank robber-turned-reporter who first invited Drummond to advise the newspaper, developed a network of contacts outside prison walls to inform his journalism. Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, who spent more time in prison for robbery than many who have committed murder, rose from operating a prison press used to print the calendars that adorn state offices to become the San Quentin News’ editor in chief.
Readers also meet two inmates — Larry “Watani” Stiner, a former Black Panther, and Kevin Sawyer, a crusading journalist in the model of Mumia Abu-Jamal — whose deep reflections on race and injustice in America are evocative of the prison writings of Malcolm X.
Perhaps most heroic of all was Arnulfo T. Garcia, a heroin addict sentenced to 60 years to life under California’s three-strikes law after a burglary conviction. His emergence as an editor in chief, diplomat, negotiator, coach and mentor is worthy of a book of its own — one that Garcia never lived to write. Released early for good behavior in 2017, Garcia died two months later in a car crash.
The publication of “Prison Truth” comes at a time when the debate around incarceration has been rapidly shifting, fueled as much by the exorbitant cost of confining inmates as by concerns about reconciliation and rehabilitation.
In California, prison reform has been spurred by a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — a Sacramento native — found that the prison system had “failed to deliver minimal care to prisoners with serious medical and mental health problems and produced needless suffering and death,” violating the 8th Amendment’s ban against cruel and unusual punishment.
New interest in prisons also has been spurred by societal forces, including the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black”; law professor Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow”; the podcast “Ear Hustle”; and the establishment of the Marshall Project, an investigative news site focused on criminal justice issues.
Since Drummond began volunteering at San Quentin in 2012, teaching a 15-week introductory journalism class for 18 inmates, the prison’s population has shrunk substantially.
The publication of the San Quentin News — reincarnated in 2008 after it had been shut down in the 1980s — is itself an irony. The decade of its revival was one in which layoffs, buyouts, budget cuts — all brought about by the digital media transformation, declining advertising revenue and, in some cases, rapacious corporate ownership — left American newsrooms weakened and depleted.
Professional journalists like Drummond advise the inmate newspaper, but ultimate control resides with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Drummond acknowledges that the newspaper is nothing like The Angolite, the hard-hitting magazine published at the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, which has been celebrated for its investigations.
“The San Quentin News took a different path, one that emphasized healing, reconciliation and personal responsibility,” Drummond says. He notes that state-imposed limits on the newspaper’s editorial independence “beg the question of whether journalism can achieve meaningful reform without exposés that reveal shocking facts.”
Yet the San Quentin News has had its moments of editorial courage. In 2013, the warden suspended publication for 45 days after an editor ran an unapproved photograph — showing prisoners and an actress, lying down, and later dubbed “the yoga photo.” The resulting publicity, including a journalism award, was an unexpected boon. “Suddenly in the estimation of big media around the country, the motley crew had become a beleaguered bunch of prisoner/journalists standing up for the First Amendment,” Drummond writes.
At Drummond’s urging, students from UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business helped the school draw up a business plan, forming an unlikely consulting arrangement between MBAs and inmates who typically had at best a GED earned behind bars.
The book is most revealing in its examination of race and public policy. It reminds us that reformist impulses guided prison management within living memory and changed — at least in California — when the racial and ethnic composition of inmates changed. The prisoners in “Duffy of San Quentin,” a 1954 melodrama about the humanitarian San Quentin warden Clinton T. Duffy, are nearly all white. But as a crime wave besieged America in the 1960s, the prisons quickly became warehouses for black and brown bodies, the ultimate outcome of society’s failures to provide decent education, juvenile justice, mental health and addiction treatment services.
Drummond concludes with a call to turn prison into colleges and urges universities to help reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, as Berkeley has done.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from disorganization. Its most telling chapters recount Drummond’s days as one of the only African American reporters at The Times, then owned by the Chandler family. In the mid-1960s, when Drummond joined The Times from the Louisville Courier-Journal, the paper’s staff was nearly entirely composed of white men, so much so that the newsroom enlisted a black classified advertising manager, Robert Richardson, to help cover the Watts riots.
Drummond richly describes newsroom characters like the reflective William F. Thomas, a metro editor who was later the paper’s chief editor, and Glen A. Binford, a salty night city editor. Drummond’s achievements — an interview with Eldridge Cleaver, a pivotal role in the front-page story chronicling Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination — are recounted at a brisk pace.
But the book’s most devastating moment — a succinct account of his mother’s murder by a spurned lover in 1957, when Drummond was 12 — deserves more than the six pages devoted to it. One hopes that Drummond, having helped others to tell their stories, will find it in him to tell more of his own.
William J. Drummond
University of California Press: 334 pages; $26.95
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