In 1887, inmates at the Stillwater Prison embarked on an experiment — publishing a prison newspaper.
“It is with no little pride and pleasure that we present to you, kind reader, this our initiave [sic] number of The Prison Mirror, believing as we do, that the introduction of the printing press into the great penal institutions of our land, is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform,” the first issue declared Aug. 10, 1887.
Recently The Prison Mirror celebrated its 130th anniversary, and boasts the distinction of being the oldest continuously published prison newspaper in the country. It’s still written and edited by offenders, and prison staff and inmates say it still plays a positive role in the prison.
“This is a vital piece for the offenders to have a voice, and in a positive way,” said Victor Wanchena, associate warden of the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater. “They wield a tremendous amount of power in terms of setting tone and a positive voice.”
Wanchena also sees the paper as “a grand historical tradition” and feels responsible for its upkeep.
A ‘revolutionary’ experiment
The Prison Mirror was founded with $200 raised by convicts themselves, including $50 donated by the infamous Younger brothers. Lew P. Schoonmaker was the editor, and the paper’s motto was “God helps those who help themselves.” The paper sold advertising, and subscriptions cost $1 a year. Profits from the paper benefited the prison
One of the paper’s missions, according to the first issue, was to offer inmates “a glad ray of hope to light and encourage them upward toward a higher and nobler life, to banish from their hearts the midnight gloom of prejudice, envy and malice, and in their bosoms reflect the cheering light of reason, truth and love.”
Halvur G. Stordock, who was prison warden in 1887, was taking a risk when he approved the newspaper’s publication.
“If it shall prove a failure then the blame must all rest on me,” he wrote in the first edition. “If it shall be a success then all credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work. It was necessary to have my consent before the experiment could be tried and therefore I am responsible for the venture.”
According to Wanchena, allowing offenders to print a newspaper and express their views in an officially sanctioned manner was “revolutionary” and “incredibly progressive forward-thinking.”
In addition to providing learning opportunities and a means of self-expression for prisoners, the paper served as a historical record of the happenings at the Stillwater Prison.
Martin Hawthorne, a vocational education teacher who currently oversees the Prison Mirror, said it’s fascinating to look through old issues.
“There’s some really interesting stuff,” he said. “You read some of it and you go, ‘They did what?’ ... It’s amazing some of the stuff that’s gone on here.”
The Mirror today
Today the paper is published monthly and funded by the sale of phone time to offenders. The Mirror is still distributed both inside and outside the prison, with copies sent to locations across the U.S. and even Canada.
Working on the paper is one of the jobs offenders can hold in prison, and they can make up to $1.50 an hour. The job is seen as privilege for inmates, who must apply and go through a competitive selection process, according to Hawthorne.
“I’ve always wanted to work on the Mirror since I’ve been here,” said the current sports editor in an interview with The Gazette. The Department of Corrections allowed interviews with editors of the paper on the condition that names not be disclosed, out of respect for victims.
The paper’s three editors work on the paper six hours a day, plus time spent covering events.
Prison staff reviews and approves each month’s issue before it goes to press at an offender-run printing shop in Moose Lake. Although prison staff members check tone, appropriateness of content and general grammar and punctuation, they don’t dictate what offenders write about. Topics often include programs within the prison or an offender’s perspective on general news that might affect the prison population.
Assistant Warden Wanchena said the offenders who work on the paper take it seriously.
“It’s almost universal that they are good stewards of that position,” he said.
Like the founders of The Prison Mirror, the offenders who write for the paper today often view it as a positive force within the facility.
“I think one of the most effective tools to be a positive influence in this environment is through your writing,” said the associate editor of The Prison Mirror.
The current editors also find it meaningful to work for a paper that’s been around 130 years. They say its longevity speaks to its importance. And even though other state correctional facilities publish newspapers, the Prison Mirror is the flagship.
“Even if you’re in the other facilities in the DOC, you’re looking at the Stillwater paper,” the paper’s senior editor said.
Contact Jonathan Young at email@example.com