Josh, an incarcerated student at Hampshire County Jail, shares his experiences inside prison with classmates from UMass-Amherst. Photo: Brian McDermott

Josh, an incarcerated student at Hampshire County Jail, shares his experiences inside prison with classmates from UMass-Amherst. Photo: Brian McDermott

Introducing the Prison Journalism Navigator

Resources to help newsrooms collaborate with prison journalists

I started my fellowship at RJI eight months ago planning to create a collaborative framework for incarcerated writers to work with newsrooms to shed light on what is happening inside prisons. 

What I discovered during my fellowship was that, while the desire and the will was there, a lot of practical and logistical challenges existed in creating collaborations between newsrooms and people inside prison trying to report in controlled environments with a lot of potential consequences for doing journalism work.

Many of our writers were astute observers and had the ability to contribute powerful first hand reporting, but they lacked professional experience and didn’t know how to meet the expectations of newsrooms. On the other hand, publications often struggled with logistics such as communicating with incarcerated people within the confines of their deadlines. To complicate the picture, every state has its own rules and processes, and the federal system was separate from all of them.

In short, we saw a lot of areas of potential friction that could slow down or hinder a compelling collaboration. We also realized that there was already a lot of documentation and sharing of resources about collaborative journalism, thanks to organizations like the Center for Cooperative Media and Resolve Philadelphia, and we could utilize their work if we could figure out how to alleviate the challenges that were particular to prison journalism.

That led to the creation of the Prison Journalism Navigator, which I’m proud to unveil today. The initial components consist of the following:

  • Communicating with Prison Journalists: A practical overview. How to get in touch with people inside prisons via mail, email, phone and visits. Every state handles this differently, and we share the learnings we have accumulated about how to connect with incarcerated writers with as few complications as possible.
  • Contacting People Inside by State: Breaking down the specifics of prison communication by state with links to the relevant official documentation. While we focused on information about correspondence-related rules because it has the most restrictions, we also provided the names of the designated service providers in each state for email, telephone and payments.
  • Incarceration Data and Other Resources: A starting point of data sources, articles and reports about incarceration, broken down by topic. 
  • A Reporter’s Glossary of Prison Jargon: Prisons are communities rife with code, shorthand and jargon intended to save time, conceal meaning from correctional officers (COs), or convey a dense amount of information. Many of the words also assume a lot of knowledge about the way prisons work, which may not be evident to an outsider.

I’m particularly proud of this glossary because it was compiled by 17 incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers and contributors in 11 states across the country and edited by PJP. We believe it is the first of its kind created as a collaboration of so many people inside.

  • Language Around Incarceration: This section outlines why PJP recommends using the person’s name or describing them as “a person who is incarcerated,” “a person behind bars,” or “individual.”
  • Language Around Incarcerated Communities of Color: Reporting on incarcerated communities of color is tricky because so much of prison life revolves around race. This section provides suggestions on how journalists and newsrooms can publish stories around incarceration without perpetuating racial prejudice and fear. 
  • Safety of Writers: When working with incarcerated writers and journalists, their safety is of paramount importance because conducting journalism inside institutions designed to limit freedoms could lead to reprisal. These are the 10 principles that the Prison Journalism Project upholds as the foundation of our work. 
  • Safety of Staff: Our work over the past two years has forced us to confront the uncomfortable reality that we can never know our hundreds of incarcerated writers just through their stories, and we must be mindful of the safety of staff working with them. We wanted to share some of the policies we have implemented to try to keep our staff safe. (To be clear, most of our writers have been a genuine pleasure to work with, and we have been able to develop a mutually respectful professional relationship with them. )

We are also inviting journalist colleagues working in this area to send us suggestions for additions and improvements as well as ideas for new sections. 

We plan to continue to add to our navigator as we continue to learn from our experience to help you also work with incarcerated writers in your communities. By the end of the year, we plan to add a primer on relevant laws that may impact writers’ ability to publish or receive payment for their work; considerations (do’s and don’ts) pertaining to the safety of incarcerated journalists; and training handouts for incarcerated writers with information about libel, their rights as journalists and scenario-based training that could help them prepare for confrontations about stories they might publish.

I would love to hear from you with any thoughts about how to improve this navigator and add to it! Please reach out anytime

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