Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As a journalist who is imprisoned, I have a somewhat unfair “inside” advantage when I report stories. Unlike outside journalists who don't have the luxury of walking around a prison to ask inmates questions, I'm able to conduct unrestricted interviews with any prisoner I come into contact with on the yard. I can also encourage prisoners to answer survey questions without the permission of the warden or the aid of a public information officer (PIO).

Outside reporters who have permission to enter a prison in California must do so under escort of a PIO and are not allowed to seek interviews with a specific prisoner. The California Code of Regulations, Title 15 reads, in part:

“News media and non-news media representatives may be permitted random face-to-face interviews with inmates or parolees housed in facilities under the jurisdiction of the department, and random or specific-person face-to-face interviews with staff. Such interviews shall be conducted as stipulated by the institution head, including restricting the time, place and duration of interviews, and size of technical crews.”

That regulation does not apply to me at San Quentin because I live there. That being the case, I'm able to conduct controlled surveys and report on my findings. It helps that I studied statistics and research methods in college, so I know how to gather information, rank my data and create charts and graphs and write. I use that knowledge to conduct controlled surveys that I publish in San Quentin News, where I am on the staff. The Global Forum Online (PJP) has also published my survey on attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccination.

In a carceral environment, it’s important to know what subject matter to write about and who to interview. After 25 years, I know who’s who in prison. Many issues that affect prisoners are oftentimes of interest to scholars and other people on the outside. That’s where I come in.

To conduct a survey, I type my questions about five times on one page — in two columns, on a single sheet of paper — to produce ten individual survey copies. Then I make about 10 to 15 copies of the page and cut them up to distribute among the inmate population. I typically have to pass out about 130 surveys to get 100 good or complete surveys returned.

For example, when I surveyed 100 prisoners inside San Quentin’s West Block housing unit about whether they would get vaccinated for COVID-19, I asked basic questions such as age, sentence and the length of time incarcerated in addition to asking whether they would get vaccinated. I also provided a small space for comments. Because they were anonymous, I could not go back to someone who failed to complete all questions.

Like any survey, the questions vary, based on what the story is about. For many reasons I may have to target a specific group of prisoners or a specific inmate to do an interview.

Regulations do not allow the outside media this kind of leeway.

For example, one regulation reads,“Inmates may not participate in specific-person face-to face interviews except as provided in subsection 3261.5(b).”

Also, something else that does not necessarily apply to me as a freelance prison journalist is a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation release form. \

However, generally speaking it’s important to include all races (i.e., Black, Hispanic/Latino(a), White, Asian and other) to make sure your results are balanced. In my opinion, for example, it would be presumptuous and biased to assume Blacks are the only group with views on Black Lives Matter or that Asians are the only leading authorities on hate crimes against Asians. Every group in prison should have a voice.

When I pass my surveys out, I'm also careful to explain what my story is about and where I intend to have it published. And, unlike some journalists who sensationalize what takes place in prison, I make it clear that I won’t exploit anyone for a story.

Like outside,there is a level of skepticism and distrust of the media by some prisoners. Mainstream journalists sometimes encounter inmates who are not enthusiastic about being exploited for a story that may turn on its face and point to their crimes.

I've seen circumstances where an outside reporter has taken an inmate’s statement out of context regarding the nature of a conviction. If a parole board reads that and sees how it contradicts the state's official record, it can prove disastrous at a parole hearing, resulting in a denial. Believe me, it has happened.

Prison journalism has its own unwritten code of ethics. Because we’re all convicts we have an obligation to “do no harm” to each other. There are things inmates will say to each other, but they are supposed to stay off record. It’s important to know the difference because we’re not cops. An outside journalist may not care, but I have to live with these guys. Freedom of the press can result in a swift and decisive violation of one’s personhood.

After I collect the 3-inch-by-5-inch slips of paper, I record and transcribe the answers and data onto a single page. I might use comments from the survey to write a story or as a starting point when I interview people directly. I usually do both.

At that point I have enough information to write a story that is unique to San Quentin and a specific housing unit within the prison. The data collected typically helps the story write itself. I'm always open to changes and suggestions made by editors, but surveys tend to not be problematic because of their data-driven nature.

The only difficulty in writing a story based on a survey is all the footwork involved to pass them out. I walk up and down five tiers from cell to cell. But it’s worth it to allow marginalized voices to be heard.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.