J298 San Quentin Editing

Meeting time: TBD

The San Quentin News Editing Project gives student journalists hands-on experience working with prisoners to publish the only newspaper of its kind in the country. Now entering its fifth year of existence, the class has not only sharpened the editing and writing skills of many Berkeley students, it has also made a difference in their lives, because they come face to face with the phenomenon of mass incarceration. They work cooperatively with people who usually have committed terrible crimes.

San Quentin News has evolved way beyond the printed newspaper in the last several years. It has created partnerships with media organizations outside the prison walls. The prisoners are now producing radio broadcasts, podcast, a print magazine and TV reports. In addition, the paper maintains its own web site (sanquentinnews.com) and Facebook page.

No matter what the J School student’s specialty (audio, video, print or web), opportunities are available to work with inmates to make their work better.

Another aspect to the San Quentin experience is the participation of veteran editors and producers from around the Bay Area who are regular volunteers in the newsroom. Professor Nigel Poor of Sacramento State is in charge of the podcast project. Nancy Mullane produces the radio program Life of the Law and handles the radio component. Michael Bott of NBC4 is working with the inmates to produce video pieces based on stories reported in the pages of the newspaper. Josh Quittner of flipboard. com and Quentin Hardy, formerly of the New York Times and now Google, are among the advisers to the magazine Wall City, which is due to launch in May.

Jacques Verduin has used J School documentary students in his award-winning GRIP project.

Each student must be cleared by the Warden’s office to enter the prison and must promise to abide by prison rules.

The class meetings are ALL held in the prison. Each student is expected to spend 90 minutes per week in the newsroom. In addition, the class will meet once a fortnight, usually for lunch at the Faculty Club, to hear a guest speaker and discuss experiences. Each student would be required to do the equivalent of a 1,500-word paper at the end of the semester detailing his or her experiences in order to receive a grade. Blog posts or other modalities would be acceptable with the advice and consent of the instructor.

Given clearance formalities and travel time, each San Quentin visit would require a 2.5-hour time commitment from portal to portal. The scheduling of the actual visits will be based on the availability of car pools and schedules of those enrolled in the class. Often the SQ visits take place on Friday afternoons. Sundays are also an option, after 2 p.m.

Entry into the San Quentin newsroom for this class is not, repeat NOT, a reporting opportunity for the J School student. If a student wants to do a story about San Quentin Prison, he or she must make that request separately of the public information officer, Lt. Sam Robinson.

Many students say the San Quentin class was their most memorable experience at UC Berkeley:

“All the men around me are dressed in blue. Aha, that’s why I could not wear jeans or blue colors. Bill tells me the amount of prisoners living here. It’s about 4 times the amount of people that live in the village I’m coming from. Looking at all those men, playing basketball, sitting outside, I wonder about their stories. As soon as I enter the editing room, there is no time to ask any questions.”

“It was an environment in which we were with peers to produce the best final product of an article we could. It also never felt like community service, so my fear of coming across as patronizing was also assuaged upon my first visit to SQ.”

“One of the biggest surprises I’ve encountered so far, which I’m a little ashamed to admit, is the intelligence and commitment of the SQ News staff. I don’t know why I expected their writing to be much worse, or their knowledge of the outside world much more limited. Juan and Arnulfo, particularly, surprise me every trip — Juan with his stringent determination and work ethic, and Arnulfo with his unfailing cheerfulness.”

“I went in not knowing much, but I did know one thing for sure: I would learn far more from the prisoners than they could learn from me.
I was right.”

“I don’t think one can get reporting more honest about the correctional system than the reporting from San Quentin because it is done by people who have lived it. And I think the ability to do that, to provide a record of experiences and issues related to those who may be misunderstood, and to create the opportunity for people to do something that may better society are, I think, values of good journalism. And those are values that I learned at San Quentin.”

The real test of the value of the San Quentin class experience is that several students continue to return to work with San Quentin News even after the semester is over, and one ex-J Schooler continues to play a role even after she has graduated and must travel more than 800 miles to visit the prison.

As mentioned, admission to the class would be contingent on obtaining a clearance to enter the prison from the Warden. Some factors that might exclude you include previous felony conviction within five years, a DUI conviction, or having a close family member incarcerated at San Quentin. You would be required to submit to the Warden your DOB, Social Security number and your drivers license number in order gain your clearance.

You would also be required to promise to adhere to all of the rules pertaining to dress, behavior and other issues. A summary of the rules is included in the document:


The learning expectations go beyond sharpening editing skills. The student reporters would also be expected to gain understanding of the issues of mass incarceration in the United States and California in particular.

A glimpse of these issues is provided in this link, created by my students in 2010.




Time:  TBD

Location:  To be determined

Class Number:  16502

Section:  2

Units:  3

Length:  15 weeks

Course Material Fee:  None

Enroll Limit:  12

Restrictions & Prerequisites