Diversity Essay: The American Penal Press Contest and the Cultivation of Prison Journalism, 1965-1991

Kate McQueen

When Charles C. Clayton, journalism professor at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale (SIU), started making the hour-long drive to Menard State Prison in 1956, his plan was to support the facility’s troubled newspaper. Menard Time was a formidable operation with a 7,000-plus circulation and a notable lack of deference towards the prison administration. Its perceived connection to a riot three years earlier put its existence in jeopardy. Warden Ross V. Randolph had given the staff one more chance to “run a real newspaper” with the hope that a more professional product would improve prison conditions.[1]

Clayton started by offering one journalism course that fall. By 1965, with a formal program in full swing, he began to think about expansion, ultimately launching a national competition called the American Penal Press Contest. This essay tells the story of this award. For twenty-six years, SIU’s journalism department organized this contest, described by historian James McGrath Morris as a “Pulitzer Prize behind bars.” A close look shows how and why the contest became a way for professional gatekeepers to encourage a marginalized corner of the fourth estate during its freest and most prolific period.

Why Awards?

Awards, sociologists explain, serve many functions.[2] They create bonds between members and institutions, celebrate extraordinary performances, and promote best practices. In an unlicensed profession like journalism, it’s hard to overestimate their importance as a tool of professionalization. This process began for journalism around the turn to the twentieth century.[3] In 1908, University of Missouri, Columbia, started the country’s first journalism school. The same year, reporters in Washington, D.C. founded the National Press Club. The Pulitzer Prize followed in 1917. Further professional associations, like American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), appeared in the next decade.

The prisoner-run press, on the other hand, was “like a plant that has grown from a field of stones,” according to Russell N. Baird, author of the first major study on prison journalism. “No one planted it there, but still it grew.” Since the first paper emerged from a debtor’s prison in 1800, the press behind bars had grown in fits and bounds. By the time Baird’s book, The Penal Press, appeared in 1965, more than half of U.S. correctional institutions had an inside publication.[4]

Ubiquity did not mean conformity. In some prisons, printing—not journalism—was the encouraged post-release job skill. In others, papers grew out of educational programming, as a learning tool. Some editors wanted an outlet to speak to fellow prisoners; others wanted to reach audiences outside the walls.[5] This development was necessarily decentralized, and newspaper staffs often felt unsure of themselves.

One of the main complaints leveled by Lawrence Snow, editor of Kentucky’s Castle on the Cumberland, in a 1964 column, was the absence of real criticism.

“Because lay readers of prison journalistic efforts are amazed to find that convicts can think and write at all, or perhaps because they are reluctant to kick a dog when he’s down, almost all who write letters to the editor are lavish with their praise,” Snow writes.

“While at first blush this may seem to make the picture rosy… it actually deprives them of the honest criticism necessary to growth… It also makes the editor wonder if the organ is ever taken seriously at all.”[6]

Measuring Impact

The American Penal Press Contest turned out to be a way to scale serious feedback, and to build a sense of common ground with the industry outside.

Its start was broadly announced, including in the New York Times, on March 7, 1965.[7] Categories included a sweepstakes for best newspaper, magazine, and mimeographed publication. Individual awards corresponded to standard journalistic genres, from the news and feature story to the editorial. The best journalistic performance earned the Charles C. Clayton Award.

Professor Manion Rice, award coordinator from 1967 to 1988, pulled judges from different places—the journalism faculty at SIU and universities in neighboring states, local high school and community college instructors, local newspaper staff. While no notes on the nature of the feedback survive, blank “contest judging” forms in the SIU archives show that judges were requested to “provide a brief statement on the attributes you select for top awards.” These, SIU journalism professor emeritus Walter Jaehnig told me, were mailed back to the participants.[8]

Frequent reference to the contest in the publications archived in Reveal Digital’s American Prison Newspapers collection offers a good sense of the guiding role the awards played inside prisons. One regular submitter, Jay Butler, editor of Wyoming’s Best Scene, spells out how rare the chance is to have work constructively criticized, in a 1968 column. “The American Penal Press Contest offers prison writers this opportunity,” he assures readers.[9] Competing papers exchanged congratulations to winners from other facilities and boasted of their own successes.

“[T]he contest validated the efforts of mostly self-taught writers,” former Angolite editor Wilbert Rideau, the nation’s most decorated prison journalist, explains, “and brought new awareness of prison issues to the outside world at a time when the public still viewed prisoners as redeemable and prisons as places not only for punishment but also for rehabilitation.”[10]

A Slow End

By the time Clayton retired, in 1971, submissions had increased from several hundred to over 1,000. In the 1980s, however, a growing emphasis on law-and-order policies and rising prison populations meant a reduction in funding, and tolerance, for prison newspapers.

Things were changing at SIU too. Clayton died in 1988; Rice retired the same year. Jaehnig, the new department head, managed to keep the program on life support for three more years. But the convergence of a few factors spelled an inevitable end. According to Jaehnig, the department’s priorities moved in a scholarly direction, away from service. Then, a disagreement broke out between the Illinois Department of Corrections and the university system, which resulted in faculty not being able to teach inside. Without these classes, SIU lost interest, and eventually stakeholders in corrections did too.

“Corrections departments wouldn’t return our mailings or phone calls, and the reports we were getting from the prisoners was that it was harder and harder to produce a publication,” Jaehnig said.[11]

A potential lifeline came from ASNE. Under Loren Ghiglione, society president from 1989-1990, ASNE formed a Prison Journalism Committee, chaired by Acel Moore, then associate editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It hosted a workshop at Menard in November 1989 to explore the possibilities of a relationship.[12] In a press release from 1990, the contest’s final year, Jaehnig writes he “hopes members of the working press will continue to coach prison journalists, who usually learn their craft informally.”[13] Despite the initial interest, the change of president at ASNE came with a change of focus, and the organization let the opportunity to take over the award’s administration pass.

Meanwhile, the prison press languished. By the time McGrath’s comprehensive history, Jailhouse Journalism, was published in 1997, only one of the top prison publications was still in print. Menard Time was not one of them. McGrath worried that journalism behind bars had become “an artifact of penal history.”[14]

Reviving the Legacy  

One crucial takeaway from the story of the American Penal Press Contest is that passionate individuals can initiate change but broad institutional buy-in is needed to maintain an inclusive news ecosystem. Thankfully, there are signs of renewed interest from educators and working journalists in the field today. Since 2012, University of California, Berkeley’s journalism school has supported the production of the prisoner-run San Quentin News. In 2015, the Northern California chapter of Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) formed a satellite at San Quentin, and the chapter welcomes submissions from incarcerated writers in their annual awards contest.[15] And as of 2021, the non-profit Prison Journalism Project also sponsors a virtual SPJ chapter for incarcerated journalists across the country.[16] It currently has nine members—still a small plant, but one ready to be grafted.

About the author: Kate McQueen is a lecturer at University of California, Santa Cruz, specializing in literary journalism, with a focus on narratives of crime and justice. She also serves as a director of special projects at Prison Journalism Project.

Featured image: Staff member Dustin Markel displays his American Penal Press Contest certificate of merit for Arkansas’ Long Line Writer in January, 1982. “Long Line Writer.” Long Line Writer 4, no. 1 (January 1, 1982): 16. https://jstor.org/stable/community.29678042.


[1] James McGrath Morris, Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 1998), 149.

[2] Bruno A. Frey, “Giving and Receiving Awards,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, No. 4 (Dec. 2006): 377-388.

[3] Betty Winfield, ed., Journalism, 1908: Birth of a Profession (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2008).

[4] Russell Baird, The Penal Press (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1967), 11.

[5] Kate McQueen, “Introducing American Prison Newspapers, 1800-2020: Voiced from the Inside,” JSTOR Daily, September 22, 2021, https://daily.jstor.org/introducing-the-american-prison-newspapers-collection/.

[6] Lawrence Snow, “Problems of a Prison Editor,” Castle on the Cumberland 3, no. 8 (February 15, 1964): 15, https://jstor.org/stable/community.29716609.

[7] “Prison Paper Contest Slated,” New York Times, March 7, 1965.

[8] Walter Jaehnig interview with Kate McQueen, Carbondale, IL, October 17,  2017.

[9] Jay Butler, “Jay-Walking,” Best Scene 7, no. 5 (May 1, 1968): 8, https://jstor.org/stable/community.30002615.

[10] Wilbert Rideau and Linda LaBranche, “Can a Free Press Flourish Behind Bars?” The Nation, June 25, 2014, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/can-free-press-flourish-behind-bars/#:~:text=It%20can%2C%20says%20Mirror%20editor,them%20on%20to%20further%20achievement.

[11] Jaehnig interview.

[12] “Outside Newspaper Editors Visit Prison Journalists,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 16, 1989.

[13] “News from SIUC,” January 5, 1990, Charles C. Clayton Papers, Morris Library Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

[14] Jailhouse Journalism, 187.

[15] Rahsaan Thomas and Shadeed Wallace-Stepter, “Behind Bars—And in SPJ,” Quill, July 16, 2017, https://www.quillmag.com/2017/06/16/behind-bars-and-in-spj/

[16] “SPJ, PJP Partner on National Virtual Incarcerated Chapter,” Prison Journalism Project, April 13, 2021. https://prisonjournalismproject.org/2021/04/22/spj-pjp-partner-on-national-virtual-incarcerated-chapter/


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