by Ian Enger & Liliana Hernandez
The United States locks up more people per capita than any other nation. 80% of those behind bars under local authority have yet to be convicted and are presumed innocent. The Prison Journalism Project (PJP) works to uplift the stories of those incarcerated and help them work on their writing skills, and become journalists and publishers of their own stories. Through their two branches, PJP J-School, the journalism training arm, and PJP Newsroom, the editorial arm, PJP works to provide support to these writers, and allows them to publish their stories to their online magazine.
Project Goals: The Prison Journalism Project wanted to uplift voices within prisons and teach journalism skills to the incarcerated. They aimed to provide professional support to incarcerated writers through their two branches while trying to improve criminal justice coverage in the media. By implementing this project they hoped to make the journalism industry more inclusive and equitable and make a field level impact to affect criminal justice conversations.
Project Resources: In 2018, Shaheen Pasha received a Nieman fellowship from Harvard University which allowed her to begin researching how to teach journalism to incarcerated individuals. While on the fellowship she met Yukari Kane, and the two teamed up to create the Prison Journalism Project. The co-founders then used their personal funds to jump start the project in April 2020.
Tools & Technology: The PJP website offers an abundance of tools to get incarcerated writers and journalists alike on the same page. There are glossaries for prison jargon, legal terminology, incarceration data and more.
Impact: The Prison Journalism Project made impacts for the incarcerated in addition to the formerly incarcerated, it created opportunities while in prison as well as for life after. The project was intended to train inmates that would ultimately lead to; improved writing skills, verifying their observations and being able to describe things in a more direct manner. The program has worked with over 650 writers in 175 prisons throughout 35 states to publish more than 2,000 stories. As mentioned, PJP works to prepare incarcerated people to develop their writing skills while in prison, in hopes to help them continue writing upon release. One example of this working is with Ryan Moser, a PJP student who has had articles published in the Evening Street Review, Storyteller, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Progressive, The Marshall Project, Medium, The Wild Word, The Startup, and more.
How it Happened
Shaheen Pasha’s childhood friend received a sentence of 150 years in prison. When she first visited the friend, he remarked how everyone inside has a story, but no one would ever hear them. This both troubled and inspired Pasha. Pasha started by volunteering in local prisons. Once she saw the positive effect their lessons were having, Pasha wanted to take their initiative national.
1. Having a Clear Strategic Plan
The Prison Journalism Project set clear policies and processes on business aspects, social media guidelines, ethical responsibilities and worked with the incarcerated population which helped keep the project, writers and reporters all on the same page.
2. Specific Trainings in Place
The Prison Journalism Project embarked on a Duty of Care training; which centered the physical, emotional, digital and legal security of its journalists, and allowed staff to set a standard for reporting and working with incarcerated writers and staff.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Clear strategic communication
Being more strategic, clear and communicative with the volunteer network can make things smoother. There is also the goal of setting clear initial guidance on communications and expectations when conversing with the incarcerated writers, in hopes of making it more of an easy-going process.
2. Distribute the work
Finally, dividing the responsibilities more efficiently to avoid burnout and complexity from having too many people responsible or consulted for key decisions.
What Else You Should Know
- The Prison Journalism Project hopes to secure $1.5 million in funding, build a three-month reserve and triple our audience size by December 31, 2023.
- They are also seeking to bolster their volunteer network, create a membership plan and publish a 200-page handbook, named A Prison Writers Guide to Media Writing for distribution to their incarcerated writers across the country.