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BONUS: “The Prison Beat” | S2: New Folsom

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A side-by-side image of Jesse Vasquez on the left and Rahsaan Thomas on the right. Jesse Vasquez, who has a shaved head and is wearing a light blue checkered shirt, is seated outdoors with greenery in the background. Rahsaan Thomas, who has a goatee and is wearing a red "Ear Hustle" T-shirt, is standing outside, smiling, with trees and a clear sky behind him. Both are formerly incarcerated journalists. The words "On Our Watch" are visible in the lower left corner of Jesse's photo.
Journalists Jesse Vasquez (left), executive director of the Pollen Initiative, and Rahsaan Thomas (right), executive director of Empowerment Avenue.

View the full episode transcript.

Reporting on prisons from the outside is often difficult; it’s a closed and secretive world. But there is also important reporting being done by people who are inside prison, which comes with dangers of its own. Sukey and Julie sit down with two formerly incarcerated journalists, Rahsaan Thomas and Jesse Vasquez, to talk about the challenges and opportunities of prison reporting.


Rahsaan Thomas is the Executive Director of Empowerment Avenue and a producer at Ear Hustle.

Jesse Vasquez is the Executive Director of the Pollen Initiative and former Editor-in-Chief of the San Quentin News.


Mental health resources

If you are currently in crisis, you can dial 988 [U.S.] to reach the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

SAMHSA National Help Line
988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Helpline
US Health and Human Services
Warmline Directory


The Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism was a key partner in making Season 2 of On Our Watch.

The records obtained for this project are part of the California Reporting Project, a coalition of news organizations in California. If you have tips or feedback about this series please reach out to us at onourwatch@kqed.org


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Chris Egusa: Before we start. Just wanted to give you a heads up that this episode references acts of violence. If you or someone you know needs support. We’ve got links to resources in the episode description. 

Sukey Lewis: Hi and welcome back to another bonus episode of On Our Watch I’m Sukey Lewis. Throughout reporting this season, my co-reporter Julie Small and I knocked on a lot of closed doors, pored over hundreds of pages of documents that were often redacted beyond recognition, and our best hope of contacting a source in prison was usually to send a letter via snail mail and hope they responded. In general, reporting on prisons can be really difficult, finding sources and navigating the politics of a closed world. But in recent years, there’s also been a revival of the prison journalism movement. Newspapers and podcasts created from inside that world by incarcerated reporters. 

In this episode, Julie and I talk to two journalists who started their careers inside prison. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, who consulted on this season of On Our Watch, is also a producer for the Ear Hustle podcast and started a nonprofit called Empowerment Avenue that supports incarcerated writers and artists. Jesse Vasquez: was editor in chief of the San Quentin News newspaper and now directs a nonprofit called the Pollen Initiative, which provides multimedia training to other people in California prisons. Here’s our conversation. 

Thank you, everybody, for coming here today to the various places that we are joining, joining each other from. Rahsaan, how did you become a journalist? 

Rahsaan Thomas: I became a journalist by accident and half way because of a scam. I arrived in the San Quentin prison yard after working on this book for like, maybe seven, eight, almost ten years. And, but the book was mostly handwritten and there was no way to really edit it. Like when you want to edit it, you have to rewrite it or retype it and it’s like… And so I wanted to work for San Quentin News because they had computers and I wanted to type my book and set a computer so I can get somebody to help me edit it and hopefully publish it and get it on the New York Times bestseller list and change the world. 

And so I went in there with that mindset. But I started fell in love with journalism. They made me the, sports reporter. And at first I was like, I want to write about bigger and better issues. Sports just seems so limited. But then I realized that. There was some social justice things happening, some really beautiful human interest things happening on the basketball court because it was uniting worlds that never meet normally, like billionaires and millionaires were playing basketball with kids from the streets of Los Angeles. And so something beautiful happening. And I fell in love with writing. And I found out at the same time that my book was horrible. Nobody ever deserves to see it. I need to rewrite it anyway. And but I got so caught up with journalism I never got to finish the book. 

Sukey Lewis: I feel you, I’m a I’m a failed novelist and poet. So journalism. Same save the universe from my creative writing as well. Jesse, what was your journey to journalism? How did you become involved in this world? 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah, I think my journey started with kind of like Rahsaan as an accident. I was more into daily journaling, and I was a pretty good writer in my academic, pursuits. Then I decided to transfer to San Quentin because I saw the San Quentin News join the Journalism Guild. And I fell in love with just telling people stories and meeting people in the yard and seeing what they were up to and making a difference in our community inside. I think journalism for me was what gave me purpose. In spite of the multiple life sentences that I was serving. It gave me an outlet to share people’s stories and make a difference while I was incarcerated. 

Sukey Lewis: And now you’re an editor. Like, how how was that transition and what’s the difference in in your mind if there is one between the work that you did as a journalist and as an editor? 

Jesse Vasquez: I think the huge difference is I have to think more in terms of management and structure, like it’s… Before it was just, you know, I want to tell impactful stories, powerful stories, you know, human interest stories. And then I realized that there’s, you know, a ripple effect to what we say, how we say it and to who we say it, depending on the platform that we’re using. And editing and overseeing the management of incarcerated produced content for, like an institutional publication like San Quentin News can be a bit tricky just because, you know, there’s certain things that we want to be mindful of when it comes to what we publish and produce. So it’s very it’s a very political position. I never understood that being an editor was very political, and you have to be very mindful of, you know, how you approach a subject, you know, not just because of the liabilities, you know, but also because we have a certain responsibility to the community that we represent. 

Sukey Lewis: Yeah. The San Quentin News is such a unique publication. I myself am an alum of that program. When I was in graduate school at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, I got to go in with my professor, Bill Drummond, and work with some of the incarcerated journalists. And for me, you know, as a baby reporter myself, just figuring out the world of journalism, it was so inspiring to work with incarcerated reporters and also just to learn more about the this world of prison, prison reporting and criminal justice and kind of got me started heading down deeper and deeper into gaining expertise in the field and becoming a criminal justice reporter myself. What about you, Julie? Like what- what drew you to prison reporting in the first place? And, you know, is there a kind of seminal story for you about it? 

Julie Small: Well, I, I like to say that it picked me. I didn’t pick prisons, picked prisons, picked me because my first day on the job in Sacramento was the day the then Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the prisons for overcrowding. The first major story I did was, you know, going into San Quentin, actually, with the federal receiver who’d been appointed by a federal judge to improve prison medical care because one person a day was dying inside our prisons because they couldn’t get access to care. There were like 200,000, almost 200,000 people incarcerated in California in 2006 for facilities designed for 80,000 people. And you can only imagine that’s going to compromise every aspect of life, especially medical care. So the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce the crowding. And that was sort of unprecedented, kind of order to get from the US Supreme Court. So it’s just been a part of my life following that, mostly, for over a decade. 

Sukey Lewis: Or San for you, is there a story that you feel kind of most proud of reporting, or a moment where you feel like your journalism was kind of able to, you know, affect the broadest number of people or anything like that? 

Rahsaan Thomas: There’s definitely a story I’m proud of, but I don’t feel it had the impact I wanted. I wrote a story for Wall City Magazine, which is a division of San Quentin News, about stopping gun violence, because I was watching TV one day and the senator was acting like he’s an expert on stopping gun violence because he talked to a gunshot victim. And based on talking to this gunshot victim, he came up with this or supported this idea of arming the teachers. And I’m sitting here thinking like, if you arm to teachers, that’s where the next guns are going to come from, you big dummy. And I just felt like, here I am in a prison with 2500 lifers running around with very little supervision at times, and it’s one of the safest places I had ever been up at that point in my life. And most of these guys that committed violence and we stopped it by therapy really, like putting restorative justice into place, not as a way to deal with harm, but as a as a way of life. So when harm is thinking about happening, this way of life is already in place to prevent it. Right. And just that therapy and being included in a community, being exclusioned, leaving people out of society, right, and rubbing in their face that you’re here but you’re not one of us. There’s all these different things that were happening in San Quentin, and I felt like were an answer to gun violence. And I wanted to get that out there. And so I did a lot of research and wrote this article I’m really proud of, and I think I’m the only that read it. Cuz we still get shot. Ah it’s sad. It’s sad.

Sukey Lewis: Oh I’m sorry. That that’s one of the most frustrating things is finding an audience for for your reporting. What about you, Jesse? Is there a story that you’re the most, you know, proud of writing or, you know, being an editor for getting getting in the paper? You know, despite obstacles?

Jesse Vasquez: I will clarify that. I did read Roseanne’s piece on gun violence. So it was two of us. 

Sukey Lewis: At least two people. 

Jesse Vasquez: At least two of us read it. Well, there was probably one adviser who read it to to proofread it. So we did the best we could. There is one story that I think, I, I mean, I wrote and it was based on the victim compensation fund and the Department of Corrections. And I think the reason why I remember that story very vividly, because I had a couple guys on the prison yard actually come to me, right? And tell me, like, dude, like I didn’t know where my restitution money was going. I didn’t understand that there’s this victim compensation fund that is there, but the victims had to actually request it. You know, it’s not an automatic thing where, you know, like you’re paying into the restitution and a check is sent to the victims every, you know, month or every six months or whatever. It’s they have to keep their address up to date. They have to check that the money is there. They have to make sure that they tell the, you know, victim compensation board to make sure that they, you know, get their money. So I had a couple guys come to me and say, like, ‘You know what, I contacted my family to contact so-and-so to let them know, like, hey, there’s some money waiting for you because I’m getting charged for it. And I want to make sure that the victims get it. Instead of it being rolled into the general fund or whatever, you know that the state does.’ And I think the reason why I’m most proud of that story in particular, is because I’ve always wanted to at least make a difference in the small community that we were serving. And for me, that immediate context is the people that I was locked up with. And that’s why, like, you know, still to this day, I remember that one story. 

Sukey Lewis: Rahsaan, I was also wanting to ask you about the stories that you didn’t get to tell. Like, are there any stories that you wished you could tell, you know, while you were incarcerated but could not, because of, you know, the pressures or the censorship from others or just the limitations of the environment?

Rahsaan Thomas: Honestly, there’s stories that I wish were told, but I didn’t want to tell them. For instance, there were like prison officials and wardens that were like getting in legal troubles. And so it felt hypocritical that they weren’t being punished and they were responsible for holding us accountable. But at the same time, I’m not trying to do stories about, like, blood and crip stuff, right? Like I’m trying to do positive stories or story that’s going to make a difference in stories like, look what they’re doing, right? I wanted to do stories that like, ‘Look what we could be doing and be a better place.’ So I can’t say there’s any stories that I really held back on. There’s stories I haven’t finished yet. There’s stories I’m working on, but nothing’s stopping me with me. 

Sukey Lewis: And you know, Jesse, I have a slightly different question for you, which is just, you know, as an editor, has there ever been a time where, you know, CDCR leadership or, you know, the warden of San Quentin or now that you’ve spread to other, you know, places has, you know, shut down a story or killed a story. 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah, there was a story, one in particular that was going to go into Wall City Magazine. And it was a great story about, you know, two people finding love inside of the carceral system. I don’t know if you remember this one Rahsaan, but it was going to go in Wall City Magazine, and it was a great story written by Joe Garcia. And the lead editor on that was Kate McQueen. And it was an awesome piece, maybe about 2500 words.

But the reason why it became an issue was for safety concerns. You know, inside of the California prison system, you can imagine the amount of, you know, machismo and, let’s say gender bias and stuff that exists, and a lot of the violence that is perpetuated against trans and, you know, other communities that people consider other. So it was like the administration was like, ‘We can’t let you run that story. It’s going to jeopardize these individuals, you know, if they get transferred somewhere else. San Quentin is a more, let’s say, tolerant environment, a more accepting environment. But if they ever get transferred somewhere else, you’re jeopardizing their safety. And, you know, we can’t allow that.’

So that was one issue where I didn’t agree with the decision. But I also understood that it’s not my responsibility to worry about people’s safety. That’s the state responsibility. And they’re seeing it from a liability perspective that I wasn’t paying attention to. I was just looking at it as a good story. They were looking at it well, there’s liability, you know, and there’s implications. 

Sukey Lewis: Well, I wanted to shift us into talking a little bit about some of the things that we ran into reporting this podcast, you know, this season of On Our Watch. Rahsaan, you were an editorial consultant for On Our Watch, and you gave feedback along the way about the series. And, you know, I always just really appreciated your input.

One of the things that you just kind of, I think brought home for me, in the editorial room was the kind of wildness of the situation with the murder of Luis Giovanny Aguilar. The fact that deadly force was not used, you know, in this unit and, you know, when this was transpiring. And you really wanted to, you know, help us get that across to listeners because we, you know, in our earlier drafts, we’re not doing so. Can you talk a little bit about that, like why that particular environment, why it was so kind of startling to you — who has a familiarity with the world inside prison — why the deadly force was not used as an option? 

Rahsaan Thomas: Yeah. The first thing you see, or one of the first things you notice that sounds really cold is the sign on the wall that says no warning shots, and they mean it. They don’t yell, you know, ‘Stop, break up the fight.’ They break up fights with gunfire. And so I know them to be really harsh with that weapon that Mini 14. I’ve been on the yard with people who have bullets in them from that Mini 14, and for it not to be used in that incident where the that might have been a viable way to stop somebody from getting killed? And they didn’t? It just spoke to me it like that was a setup. Like that was a huge clue to me that that’s not how that world works. I’ve actually seen the gun fired at San Quentin before, and this is like one guy had another guy in a headlock. No weapons were involved, but he just wouldn’t let him out of a headlock. And then, thank God, the officer fired into the ground. But he fired into the ground three times, right next to where the guy had the other guy in a headlock for a wrestling match, right? So I just don’t know a world where somebody’s gets stabbed to death and they don’t use that gun. 

Sukey Lewis: Yeah. And you talked about the kind of psychological impact of, like, living under that gun, like that, you know, that gun is in the control booth kind of looking over you all the time. And that really made an impact on me because I was kind of thinking about it more from the perspective of just like, ‘Oh, this is this person’s job is supposed to keep people safe.’ But there is just always this gun looking over you no matter what you’re doing. 

Rahsaan Thomas: Yeah. And I always felt like it’s supposed to protect you, but I always felt like because they have a bad habit of hitting people of color, not using them when your lives on the line, just, like, really selective. And even in a perfect world where they’re trying to do the right thing, it’s still a matter of aim and movement and just all these different factors. I rather take my chances with the ice pick. Y’all mind y’all business. I rather take my chances with the ice pick than that gun being over my head. 

Sukey Lewis: Wow. Jesse, I also called you a number of times while working on this series because I just think of you as somebody who’s got really good advice about how to deal with tricky situations, ethical decisions, and, you know, just to make sure, like, do a gut check on myself about how I’m approaching certain things. And I know you have really strong feelings about this, but like, can you tell me, you know, what are your pet peeves? What are the pitfalls that you see reporters or news organizations falling prey to, you know, when they’re reporting on prisons and incarceration? 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah. It’s, I think it’s it’s personal to me just because, like, I know the folks inside, you know, and having been there for, you know, two decades, you get to learn people’s mannerisms and stuff and you have a different appreciation for life. So some of the things that I know, you know, when people report on the incarcerated or just on things that pertain to our living environment, there’s certain things that need to be said and told. Right? But they have repercussions for us as a population. It’s just like one thing, right? Like, for instance, they told the story about us getting, you know, Snickers bars and peanuts back in the days for Christmas. We used to get free Christmas packages, you know, that were paid for by the state. And a reporter happened to run the story and stuff like that. And it was great that the state was doing something for the incarcerated during Christmas time, you know.

But unfortunately, when the story came out, there was so much backlash behind the state being “soft on crime” that they stopped that program. So it’s like, did you do this story as a human interest story or were you doing the story? Just because look at what taxpayer money is doing. Look at what they’re doing. They’re feeding these criminals and stuff. Right. So it’s the twist that they put on it. And sadly, you know, most of the stories that have come out of prison, you know, have been detrimental to the incarcerated, to our conditions. And everybody’s been speaking on our behalf, taking our quotes out of context. And it’s like, well, how come you just don’t let me tell the story, you know, how come you just don’t, like, report accurately what I’m trying to mention.

Most reporters, they parachute into the prisons, they parachute in, get a story, run that story, and they tell you like, you know, number one is like, we want to protect people’s, you know, safety and well-being and stuff like that. That’s an illusion. That’s to appease your conscience. You can’t. You can’t guarantee anything. You know, once you take that story and run with it. Right. You can’t guarantee nobody’s safety. That’s number one. Number two, the idea of, you know, journalism doing no harm. It’s like nobody tells a story not intending to do harm. Sometimes we tell the story one and people to go to jail wanting things to change. Like that’s a reality. That’s harm. That’s going to happen to somebody’s family somewhere, somehow. You know, so when you take a story that a reporter publishes and then they don’t come back to talk to the person that they interviewed, when they don’t try to create community or relationships or stay engaged to make sure that nothing does happen to this person, like, that’s a disservice to that individual and to themselves as journalists, because now you’ve lost your credibility with the incarcerated because you told them you wanted this story to make a difference, but then you, like, let them down by just walking away after you got a Pulitzer or something. 

Rahsaan Thomas: As part of Empowerment Avenue, we have help writers publish stories that are critical to CDCR and major platforms, and they have gotten flack for it. One writer in particular, he was put into a cell with a guy known for attacking people, and we feel it was on purpose. Like, you know, this guy’s attacking. You know, he keeps attacking people. He’s an old man with mental health issues. You know, this is going to happen. Sure enough, my boy got attacked. He didn’t fight back, though. He just did enough to, like, stop the attack. And they still put him in a hole even though he was the victim. Right. So we really feel like it was retaliatory. And in situations like that, your heart goes out and it’s a reminder that everybody’s not in San Quentin. Where the retaliat- I believe there’s retaliation as well, but it looks different. It doesn’t look like violence. 

Sukey Lewis: Was he was that person okay? Like what? What happened to them? Physically? 

Rahsaan Thomas: They’re fine. They survived it. Got hit in the head with a lock. So he survived it. And we’re trying to like right now sue to get the video footage to try to do something. 

Sukey Lewis: Julie, I was going to ask you, was is there anything, you know, that you’ve noticed in your years of reporting about prisons, you know, blind spots that you see regularly in the media or, you know, things that you’ve learned over the years that have kind of informed the way you approach prison reporting? 

Julie Small: Well, I like what was said about people parachuting in. That happens a lot. I like to think that I didn’t parachute in, but, because I kept covering the stories. But I can see now that I, I relied too heavily on advocates and people on the outside. It was harder before to actually speak to people who are incarcerated. And the first experience of having good access was during Covid. And I was able to talk to people in San Quentin as things were happening. But that was relatively new and recorded on a decent line. And, so it’s it’s changed and there’s better access now, but, a lot of times people will just focus in on one issue. There’s so many systemic issues. It needs to be covered over a period of time. So you can see if anything’s changing, if anything’s coming out of your reporting. It’s nearly impossible because it’s such a closed system. And I didn’t really appreciate that until we did this podcast.

And, and I was thinking about the things that are being measured throughout my career, you know, the medical care, mental health care, how many visits to the therapist, dental care. You know, those were tangible things that I could measure, and even use of force going up or use of force going down. But we actually aren’t told what’s going on inside the prisons, where if a crime occurs inside, it’s not a public record. There’s so much going on, and it’s really hard for us to gauge how how dangerous it is because it’s completely being withheld from us. And, this podcast was the first time I really got to talk to correctional officers who were open about it, and also realizing that there are- they’re also people on that side caught in this, you know, silence, this code of silence that you can’t break it. They don’t agree with it. They’re aware of the problems, but they go along. And so I guess. That’s a much harder story to get at. And it took two years for us to get it. That’s, you know, and that’s maybe why people don’t get at it. But, this is breaking through that silence. The only way is to find to talk to more people who are formerly incarcerated and more people who are currently incarcerated and former staff of any stripe, whether they’re officers or psych techs or whatever they are. It’s the only way we’re going to know, really, what’s going on. 

Sukey Lewis: Jesse, you know, two of the kind of main subjects of the series were these two correctional officers who became whistleblowers, who reported misconduct, you know, within the ISU, the investigative services unit that they worked. And I just wonder about your experience with that. Like, have you had experience with correctional officers who became whistleblowers, who are willing to talk to you for stories or willing to talk to reporters for the San Quentin News? 

Jesse Vasquez: So I’ve. I’ve gotten, I mean, I know some corrections officers, now. It’s interesting to say, you know, that we’re friends to some extent. You know, it’s it would be odd, you know, to say that they weren’t, though, just because the level of intimacy that we’ve developed over time, and I think that just came with, like, developing a relationship where there was like, care and concern for the individual as a person versus just as a source for a story. And even though some of the stories that they’ve shared. Right, they go back, you know, five years, ten years, 15 years. Right. We haven’t really pursued them in a formal way, in an official way. Like if I get a story, I’ll usually pawn it off on somebody else because it’s not what we actually do at San Quentin News, or it’s something that I know is going to jeopardize, you know, that individual’s job or his safety. And it’s a story that I believe that, it’s not going to necessarily influence policy. Right. Because one of the things, right, when I hear stories of corrections officers in the struggles that they go through, you know, they go through the same issues that we go through as a culture inside of the prison system. 

Sukey Lewis: And, Rahsaan, what was your experience, you know, as a journalist incarcerated, you know, trying to get people to talk, you know, trying to get people to break that code of silence or that taboo against, you know, quote unquote, snitching?

Rahsaan Thomas: Yeah, I had different experiences. Some I never broke it, some I did, but for the most part, I wasn’t asking people to snitch on anything. Right. I allow people to be comfortable talking about the story without editing. And then I would edit in a way that would be to tell a story, but be respectful to the to their lives, to their trust in me, their faith in me. Because I always tell people, ‘I’m not TMZ, right? I’m trying to tell a story to make a difference. Right? I’m not. I’m a solution based reporter. I’m not. I’m just telling the story for entertainment. I don’t care about clicks. I don’t care about ratings. I don’t care about none of that stuff.’ I just want to put some intelligence on our world and show people like how we can deal with things in a way that’s gonna be effective.

And so people trusted me with their stories because I wouldn’t put stuff out there that didn’t belong out there. That wasn’t necessary for the story. And if there was something edgy where we walking the line, I would talk about it with them and ask them did they feel comfortable? And they would have to make a grown person decision. Then when we started doing that, there were like OGs that would vouch for us. There were like there were people in the community be like, ‘Nah.’ Then an OG be like, ‘Yo, they good, I good bro. Like, you can talk to them.’ And they would get the green light to do the interview. 

Sukey Lewis: That’s really amazing. Another like really big hurdle that we dealt with and also that incarcerated people face, not just in the world of journalism, but overall is this perceived lack of credibility. And we saw this over and over again, you know, incarcerated people who had reported officers for using excessive force. But if the use of force happened in a place where there were no cameras, if there was no other tangible evidence to back up their story, it was not their story did not prevail. Jesse, can you talk a little bit about how you deal with these issues of credibility as an editor and how you advise journalists that you work with to think about these issues and help them get, you know, accountability or get justice through reporting? 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah. It’s, very tricky. Just because there’s, a couple of things, right, that I learned when I first went into the system before I became a journalist. Right. That have carried over into how we set editorial, reporting expectations. You know, it’s like you can go to an interview, hear a story from somebody, and then if it’s an allegation of misconduct or something like that, then we ask for like, documentation, paperwork, you know, appointment dockets. We ask for corroborating evidence, you know, like maybe a witness or two. Right. Somebody that was there and stuff like that. But the other thing that we also tell our reporters is the people that they’re interviewing, like if there isn’t documentation yet, had them document it now and start lodging those, you know, grievance forms like a 602, right. Start writing the ombudsman, start sending something to the attorney general and stuff like that.

And then that way our story isn’t just, you know, he said she said, because that also protects us. Like, I want to make sure that above all else, right, that we continue to have some institutional credibility as a publication that at least tries to fact check and, you know, try to advise the people that were interviewing to do what’s right. Because the main thing that I realize about, the outside world and how they look at prison journalism, the way that we do it, is they think that it’s always advocacy journalism. And it’s not always that, you know, but they think because it’s prison journalists producing journalism, that it has to be advocacy because we’re talking against a system. And sometimes I think what we’re actually doing is just, you know, as they say, historically, journalism happens to be the first rough draft of human history. And I think that’s what we’re doing, just chronicling, you know, what’s happening. 

Sukey Lewis: What about you, Rahsaan? Is there, like any difference in the way that you think about credibility in, in prison or in talking to incarcerated sources versus just, you know, any source that you might talk to for a story? 

Rahsaan Thomas: No, I start out with talking with anyone as if they’re telling the truth, unless my instincts or they give me a reason not to believe them, or they make a claim that the world might not believe. And like Jesse said, you need proof to back it up. Not for me, but because if we’re going to print, it could be a lawsuit. Whatever I need to be able to back this up, it needs to be a fact, right? I think one of my greatest problems or greatest issues I ran into was being a freelancer. When it came to quoting incarcerated people in the yard. There were organizations that wanted like, it was just hard for them to accept a quote from an incarcerated person. They wanted, like notes and verification and just all this extra layers. But yet they’ll take a CDCR quote and run with it. Just don’t even fact check nothing, just run with it, put out propaganda.

And I just felt like what makes their work better than ours? Or what as a journalist like, why would you devalue- is it me? Because like, you know, we have people on NBC that was known liars, like all kinds of journalists, on major platforms. So it’s not where you at, you know, that determines your level of integrity. And so I felt like I was almost being censored by my colleagues because you’re putting a higher standard on who’s quotable or who’s reliable. When I’m telling you I’m living right here. And I see this person’s daily walk every day. They’re reliable, right? They have a reliable track record. Right. And so who are you doubting, me? Them? Both? And what are you using to weigh credibility? 

Sukey Lewis: Julie, I know you have spent many years covering prisons, a lot of years talking to public information officers and public affairs officers for CDCR. A lot of years, you know, trying to break through the wall of bureaucracy and official speak to get real answers on things that are incredibly important, you know, both for people who are incarcerated and for people who are not incarcerated, who pay for this incredibly expensive system that we all own here in California. You know, what are your, you know, tips, and, and how to do that or if not tips, what are your frustrations with trying to do that? 

Julie Small: Yeah, I, I’m going to be a little negative here. I don’t think you’ll ever get a specific answer to a specific question unless it’s innocuous or makes them look good. I think the way to deal with it is to get your information and to dig deep and have your facts. And like we did in the podcast, like, say, ‘This, this and this happened, what’s your response?’ So that it’s like you’re giving them enough rope. They are saying something ludicrous in response to evidence that you’re presenting in your story. So I think it’s like going every other place to get the information, stacking it up and presenting it and then saying, ‘Okay, now try to deny all this.’ And then let them, let them deny it. And they it just exposes them as for what they are, just not telling the truth. Not not being forthright. 

Sukey Lewis: And what’s been your experience like, Jesse? I mean, I know, like when you were incarcerated, you would have to, you know, try and get response from CDCR and now, you know, as you know, kind of a publisher, like helping other journalists who are incarcerated, you know, how do you kind of bring accountability questions to, you know, CDC, our public affairs, and what are the kinds of answers you get? 

Jesse Vasquez: So it’s pretty interesting because the whole profession of being a public information officer, right? It’s a lot of damage control. You know, it’s a lot of damage control. It’s a lot of, you know, trying to salvage an image, you know, and I think, again, like I always preface what I say with, I try to give people a lot of grace because I understand as individuals you’re put in between a rock and a hard spot, right? When this is your job, this is what you get paid for. This is what you’re supposed to do, right? Ethically and morally, you may not agree with it, right? And you may have questions. But, you know, at the end of the day, you have to protect your institution from liability, you know? So I’m very mindful of that.

You know, when I talk to our reporters and everybody that we’re training to be reporters inside the carceral system, it’s like, don’t expect people to validate the truth that you know. You know, like, just know that there’s going to be some version that’s going to come out that may not be the actual truth, you know, but you have to find a way to tell that story anyway. And then we have to be able to, not just bring them accountability, but also bring enough awareness and notoriety to the issue that it’s going to make a difference. Right? Because it can’t just come from one person and one source. And I think that’s been the thing that has helped us. Right? It’s not just about like the incarcerated. So our editor in chief wants to know this, you know, do you have an answer for him? It’s like, well, our editor in chief, you know, these two other publications and these five organizations, you know, are interested in what’s happening here. And all of a sudden it’s like, oh, you got more people involved and stuff, right? So it’s like there’s more eyeballs. There’s more accountability, right? Having more like institutions that produce journalism be involved with prison journalists is essential if we’re going to hold the systems accountable. Right. Because I think at the end of the day, most people want accountability and transparency, right? But it’s scary to go through that change. 

Sukey Lewis: You know, Rahsaan, I know we’ve talked in the past before about like, the frustrations that you have about the kinds of stories you feel like you’re allowed to tell, or people want you to tell. Can you speak to that a little bit about just, you know, the limitations that people of the journalism people allow you? 

Rahsaan Thomas: It goes back to credibility again. Right? For whatever reason, they don’t respect incarcerated people as real journalists, even though we are behind enemy lines, so to speak, and speaking from the belly of the beast, which is a tough. But certain organizations limit you to opinion pieces. Right. And so I try to be positive about that. Like we do enough opinion pieces and they’ll respect, like, we’ll build a relationship and then they’ll respect us. And then a guy will end up, you know, doing a feature piece, doing an actual reported piece. And, you know, here and there that works out, but some of us are still stuck, and some of these organizations still got it stuck in opinion piece mode. And I just think we’re so much better than that.

And I know that sometimes somebody might take offense that they’ve been to journalism school and got this degree and spent all this money and here comes somebody who just bootleg trained off the yard in the Journalism Guild, and they’re able to earn a living from prison or take up space in that paper that maybe these journalists feel like that belongs to me and my degree. But I think that if you want a better society, you have to get the whole story. Then we’ll be doing what we supposed to do as journalists, which I believe is a- to foster democracy, a world that’s inclusive, a world that’s better, a world that works for all of us. But if we only featuring one side of the story and we limit ourselves to this crap. This clickbait. We get what we we going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.

And I do want to say that I think things are getting somewhat better. Empowerment Avenue launched during Covid when reporters couldn’t get the story except having direct access to us. And so we controlled the narrative and we were able to put stories out. But COVID’s gone and the demand for incarcerated voices has gone up. And now guys have actual journalism jobs as like editors and reporters from prison and making decent salaries. So I think the world is changing. But there’s still some organizations that don’t have incarcerated voices connected. They haven’t built that community. They don’t know where the experts are. So there’s still more work to be done. But because that the demand for our voices has grown, and formerly incarcerated people keep winning Pulitzer Prizes. So I’m super proud. Like the world wants to hear our side of the story, they tired of the same old law and order crap, right? And so I’m really going into the future hopeful, but yet still speaking loudly about all the flaws that we need to fix so we can hurry up and fix them. 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah. And I think I’ll just add that what made prison journalism a force to be reckoned with in the 1800s early 1900s, up until 1991, when we had, you know 300 newspapers inside of prisons, it was community engagement, you know, like deep engagement, you know, with the prison system and, you know, just paying attention to those stories and holding the system accountable.

The other thing, too, like a lot of times we think that change in policy is going to change the world. And it doesn’t. You know, you can’t legislate how people feel about each other. You can’t tell me I gotta like somebody. You have to create a culture and an environment and a space where I want to help, where I want to care, where I want to be involved. Right. And I think creating spaces like this prison journalism movement that we have going on, like we’re actually trying to develop more civic engagement because people who are civically engaged care about their communities, and their communities start caring about them. So and I think that’s going to be at the core of how we create a cultural change that’s going to, you know, supersede policy, you know, by maybe five, ten years. So be mindful that, you know, like how you report on people, shows what you care for. 

Sukey Lewis: All right. Thank you so much for coming in. Thank you, Jessie and Roseanne and Julie for having this great conversation about journalism. 

Julie Small: Bye. 

Rahsaan Thomas: Thank you. I appreciate being here. 

Jesse Vasquez: Yeah. Thanks for having us as colleagues on here. It’s great. 

Sukey Lewis: We have links to Jesse and Rahsaan’s work in our episode description, as well as other resources to support prison journalism. Please continue to send tips or feedback about the series to onourwatch@KQED.org. This episode was hosted by me, Sukey Lewis. It was edited by Jen Chien, who is also KQED’s Director of Podcasts. It was produced by Chris Egusa. Final mixing by Brendan Willard.

Original music by Ramtin Arablouei, including our theme song. Additional music from APM Music and Audio Network. Funding for On Our Watch is provided in part by Arnold Ventures and the California Endowment. Thank you to Katie Sprenger, our podcast operations manager, our managing Editor of News and Enterprise, Otis R. Taylor Jr., Ethan Toven-Lindsay, our Vice President of News and KQED Chief Content Officer Holly Kernan. And thanks to all of you for listening. 


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