Inside stories

“We want to expose readers in every kind of publication to the incarcerated viewpoint.”

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas met freelance journalist Emily Nonko at San Quentin State Prison in 2018. Thomas is 50, co-host of the Pulitzer-nominated Ear Hustle podcast, and currently incarcerated at the prison. He had decided to write years earlier, contributed numerous stories to San Quentin News, and was interested in connecting incarcerated people with those outside. Nonko, a New York-based freelance journalist who typically focuses on cities and urban policy, developed a friendship with Thomas, and started covering San Quentin more often. “As a liberal person who felt prisons were wrong, I hadn’t realized I still had assumptions about who was in prisons, what folks are like, how prisons functioned,” she recalls. “Going in for the first time, a lot of my assumptions immediately fell away.”

Thomas and Nonko noticed that while San Quentin News was able to cover stories critical of the prison system, the audience was limited. To get a broader readership, they’d have to write for a mainstream publication—but that required internet access, which San Quentin and other prisons do not allow. Together, they conceived of the Empowerment Avenue Writer’s Cohort, a program pairing incarcerated writers with journalists on the outside who offer feedback on ideas, edit drafts, suggest publications to pitch, and facilitate communication and payment. The program, which launched in June 2020, strives to publish more essays, op-eds, and reported stories from incarcerated writers in mainstream publications—“We tell the other side of the story,” Thomas says—and pay them fair wages for their work. 

Currently, Empowerment Avenue connects 30 incarcerated writers with 30 editors and writers outside of prison. Thomas makes long-term plans for the program and continues to write himself as a member of the group. He has reported on issues including getting diagnosed with COVID-19 and losing wages during the pandemic. Nonko coordinates logistics for the 60 people involved. “You have reporters, editors, and producers who have not been touched by this system and they’re dictating what the coverage looks like, and that’s a huge problem when prisons are so hard to access,” she says. “We want to expose readers in every kind of publication to the incarcerated viewpoint.”

Recent publications include an op-ed by Christopher Blackwell, arguing for incarcerated people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine early, in The Washington Post; an essay by Wesley Williams about sewing t-shirts in a New York state prison for 26 cents an hour, in The New Republic; and an essay by Michele Scott that likens quarantine cells to dungeons, in Elle. Writers have earned a combined $10,000 for their work so far, according to Nonko, who estimates that EA will place work by incarcerated writers in 50 outlets by year’s end, and is projected to earn its writers a combined $15,000 to $20,000. Thomas sees the program as a financial life raft for participants; once you’re out of prison, he says, “you’re basically alone out there.”

Rahsaan “New York” Thomas. Photo by Eddie Herena

Nonko found many of the current writers through The Marshall Project’s “Life Inside” series, which publishes first-person essays and reporting from inside prison. Over half the participants are Black, Latino, or Asian, and most are men. (Nonko says they’re working to include more women and LGBTQ writers in the future). All participants were asked to submit applications, to clarify goals, set expectations, and help match writers and volunteers.

Finding volunteers to work with incarcerated writers was easier, Nonko says. Reporters on the outside were sourced from the Study Hall freelance journalism network over the summer, and interest seemed to rise as protests over police violence unfolded across the country. (Disclosure: I am a member of Study Hall.) Nonko had to cap the volunteer pool at 50 within a few days. Most in the group are white, and most didn’t know anyone who was incarcerated until the program. “We just wanted people to have an interest and a commitment,” Nonko says.

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Akiba Solomon, a senior editor at The Marshall Project who edits “Life Inside,” described her interactions with Empowerment Avenue as “helpful” and “logistically easier.” She worked with a volunteer to publish an essay by Corey Devon Arthur, who is incarcerated at Fishkill Correctional Facility, on strip-frisking. “In a way, they’re functioning as Corey’s agents,” Solomon says. 

The prison system poses unique challenges to the editorial process. Writers and volunteers rely on a mix of letters, the prison email system (known as JPay), and phone calls to talk through story ideas and pass drafts back and forth. There’s “no cohesiveness” in how different prisons handle communication, Nonko says, so lapses are common. In San Quentin, JPay messages are printed and hand-delivered to recipients, and incarcerated people such as Thomas are not able to respond through that system. Some volunteers transcribe from handwritten or typewritten drafts sent by their writers through the mail, or read aloud over phone calls typically limited to 15 minutes. Calls and letters are subject to surveillance. “I choose my words carefully because I don’t want messages to be delayed or rejected,” Solomon, of the Marshall Project, says. “If someone is making a charge against a corrections officer, and it’s unflattering to the facility, sometimes they’ll drag their feet to provide the email.”

The journalism industry poses its own challenges. Writers I spoke with bristled as the use of “inmate” to describe those who are incarcerated. Thomas, who has been described as an inmate by outlets he’s written for, sees the term as hypocritical and dehumanizing. “They’re calling us a noun that [conflates] who we are [with] where we are, instead of calling us people,” he says.

Christopher Blackwell, 39, is one of the program’s most prolific writers. He’s published more than a dozen stories since June, and currently contributes to Jewish Currents, the leftist magazine that frequently critiques the criminal justice system. Blackwell has a tablet purchased from the commissary, and has immediate access to instant messages from JPay, including from his volunteer editor. When we first spoke in late February, Blackwell said his volunteer, Jamie Beth Cohen, was pitching ten stories on his behalf, and called the project transformative. “We’ve become friends, collaborators, and supports for each other,” Cohen says. “There’s just so much talent trapped behind bars.”

Blackwell—who is incarcerated at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, Washington, and whose sentence won’t be up until 2043—focuses mainly on inequality in his writing. “Any time I’ve seen an individual not being treated fairly, I was going to help them and shed light on what’s going on.” Because of this, he says, “the [Washington Department of Corrections] doesn’t really like me.” But he adds that he’s never faced retaliation, possibly because he has an audience now. 

Blackwell spends four to five hours a day—“on my nice little thin mattress,” he says—working on various projects, which include his freelance writing, a manuscript for a book on solitary confinement, and Look2Justice, an advocacy nonprofit he started with his wife to address inequitable sentencing, particularly for young people. His plan is to become a full-time freelance writer once outside prison.

Empowerment Avenue hopes to expand its writers to include fiction, poetry, and books, and start a new project for visual artists, Nonko says. Thomas recently secured a partnership with Apogee Journal, which plans to publish an incarcerated-only issue in the fall. Nonko is applying for grants to pay Empowerment Avenue founders and looking to use funds from a fellowship to introduce writers to solutions journalism—a practice that Thomas sees as related to his goals of abolition and breaking cycles of poverty and violence. “If we focus on the root cause,” Thomas says, “no one gets hurt in the first place.”

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Taylor Moore is a freelance reporter in Chicago. She has written for The Guardian, VICE, CityLab, Chicago Reader, and other publications, and is a board member for the Chicago chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).

TOP IMAGE: San Quentin State Prison. Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images