SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A new venture hopes to give more incarcerated men and women in California a chance to express themselves and develop their voices.
The San Quentin News writer's guild program is starting its first partnership with another prison. Incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison will offer journalism training, professional development and mentoring to incarcerated women at Folsom Women's Facility. The goal is to establish a newsroom staff that regularly contributes content to San Quentin News.
"It was always a hope of ours to expand the paper and include women's voices," Jesse Vasquez, Director of Development for Friends of San Quentin News told KPIX 5. "Our hope was to create equal access and opportunity. We wanted them to have a sense of ownership as well."
Vasquez, a former editor-in-chief of the newspaper, calls this expansion its first satellite newsroom. An initial group of 10 participants at Folsom Women's Facility will go through a six-month journalism training program. The program is led by Lisa Armstrong - an award-winning journalist and University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor - with help from current and recent UC Berkeley graduate students.
"I'm looking forward to seeing how my words may promote social justice and inform those outside about the important issues facing incarcerated women," Folsom Women's Facility Writer's Guild participant Virginia Cervantes said in a press release.
Vasquez found a new purpose after joining San Quentin News. He believes there are big benefits to giving incarcerated people an outlet to share their thoughts.
"Journalism to me is more than just about storytelling, it's about a narrative change. The way you can change the future is by shifting the past." Vasquez said. "When we inform people with stories from the inside we're not trying to find empathy, we're trying to find some empathy by sharing 'hey here is the challenge of incarceration. Here's what we're going through."
Since San Quentin News restarted in 2008, there has been a 0% recidivism rate among program graduates. Writers for San Quentin News have published stories in The Washington Post, The Sacramento Bee, Vice and the San Francisco Chronicle.
"Providing positive emotional outlets, personal connections, and a feeling of community are integral to a person's rehabilitation," Folsom State Prison and Folsom Women's Facility Warden Rick Hill said in a press release. "We support the value of bringing this program to FWF to teach the population important journalism skills that will enable them to share their unique challenges and rehabilitation experiences in a female institution with a wider audience."
The printing, distribution, and outside operations of San Quentin News are funded by donors, with about $200,000 needed every year to operate the organization. Vasquez estimates another $45-50,000 will be needed yearly for the Folsom Women's Facility expansion.
The writer's guild is using this new venture as a test pilot. Vasquez has big dreams for expanding San Quentin News' success across the country.
"Ideally we would want to see at least one prison newspaper in every state with high incarceration rates so that the incarcerated have a voice and are able speak to the issues that are relevant in their communities to dismantle those stereotypes and biases.
"We can take that to other Department of Corrections and tell them 'Look what the paper did for San Quentin,'" Vasquez said. "San Quentin was at one time the deadliest prison in California. It has a death row. Now it's the hub of rehabilitation in California. The newspaper is spreading this message of hope here in California, how can we do this in different states?"
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