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News Inside: A COVID Lifesaver for America’s Incarcerated

News Inside magazine screenshot
News Inside magazine screenshot

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.2 million people imprisoned, a total count that justice reform advocacy groups say is higher than any other country.

Confinement, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in above average deaths and infection rates five times higher than the nation’s overall rate, according to the advocacy group Equal Justice Initiative.

And that’s where News Inside comes in.

The non-profit publication has been distributing news and COVID-19 information that inmates need to stay safe.

“We have a COVID tracker that every week tracks how many people contract the virus, how many people die who are in prisons across the country, even guards,” said Lawrence Bartley, editor of News Inside.

“There are some guards [who] don't report it, or some departments don't report what happens with their correctional officers, but we do our best to get that information,” he said.

News Inside also tracks cuts to visiting room hours and follows the stories of those who’ve been infected.

“We try to capture all of those, all those stories and also bring some data so people can really appreciate that the depth of what's happening in our prisons and jails,” Bartley said.

Just the scoop

News Inside is not doing advocacy journalism, Bartley said. The mission is to give information to prisoners rather than instigate reform. The publication was established in February 2019 and is circulated in 636 prisons and jails across 41 states.

News Inside was launched by The Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system. Its founder was former New York Times editor Bill Keller.

“Bill Keller, who was our former editor-in-chief used to say, ‘Our information is the oxygen for people both on the right and left in order to create policies and do what they want [to create] reform,’” Bartley said.

Al Tompkins, who trains journalists at the Poynter Institute, said publications like News Inside fulfill an important gap by serving the incarcerated while shedding light on their plight.

“Justice reform happens slowly, when it happens at all. But it likely would not happen without media attention,” Tompkins said.

“Politicians hate to spend money on corrections because voters want money to go to ‘law-abiding’ people,” he said. “We certainly saw this during the COVID vaccine decisions when states decided not to vaccinate people working and living in prisons first, even though prisons and jails were among the hottest hotspots in the country.”

‘Information deserts’

According to Bartley, most incarcerated people get their information from television and radio, as well as family members.

“Prisons are information deserts. If a person wants to subscribe to The New York Times and USA TODAY, that costs a lot of money, and people incarcerated in New York can make as little as 10 cents an hour,” he said.

And most incarcerated people come from poor communities.

“Their family members work all day and they have to pay rent, they have to buy food. They really don't have the money to pay for a pricey newspaper subscription,” Bartley said.

Reading material is regularly screened at prisons, with rules that allow for anything to be denied without explanation.

News Inside created a video series titled “Inside Story” after realizing that three out of five incarcerated people are illiterate.

“We give them a program that’s relatable to their personal experience, whereas CNN might deal with experiences of the public. They don't talk about what incarcerated people are going through. At least that's not their focus, but [at] Inside Story, that is our focus,” Bartley said.

The latest edition featured a piece titled “Your Zoom Interrogation is About to Begin,” which explored coercion tactics and interrogation techniques.

“During the pandemic, detectives are not interrogating people face-to-face because of the proximity and social distancing. So, they're doing it through Zoom, and we found that the instances of coercion, assault, which happens a lot in order to get people to sign confessions, went way down,” Bartley said.

The piece inspired an inmate to write Bartley that he had not been believed when he complained about being beaten up for two days in an interrogation room. The inmate said he ultimately signed a confession, but was going to use the language in the article for his legal brief.

Passion and inspiration

Bartley’s passion for News Inside is driven in part by his personal story.

At age 17, he was sent to prison after prosecutors charged him with a shooting that killed a 15-year-old at a movie theater in Long Island, NY.

While incarcerated, Bartley earned an undergraduate degree in behavioral science and a master’s in professional studies.

He was released on parole after serving 27 years and 2 months. At the encouragement of a friend, Bartley published an essay he’d written about the process of trying to win parole. His essay caught the eye of The Marshall Project and eventually led him to become the editor of News Inside.

During his time in prison, Bartley struggled to find relevant information to complete his degrees. This motivated Bartley to work toward increasing access to information. He also hopes that News Inside will provide hope of life on the outside.

“There was a guy who wrote me up, and he said ‘I have a record. I know they're not going to give me a job. Life is going to look bleak. I’ve accepted the fact that I'm going to be a career criminal and I'm going to commit more crimes. And I know that one day I'm going to come back here,’” Bartley said.

The inmate, who was scheduled to be released in April 2021, was overheard by a fellow inmate who encouraged him to read News Inside.

“He goes to the library, and he changed his whole outlook on his experience and his place in the world,” Bartley said.

In his letter, the inmate wrote that Bartley’s experience of being sentenced to 27 years in prison at the age of 17 inspired him.

The pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a serious toll worldwide, and had an immense impact on prison populations. The New York Times reported that one in three people incarcerated in state prisons have been infected.

Outbreaks have drawn criticism from rights and advocacy groups such as Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit research and advocacy group.

“Lawmakers failed to reduce prison and jail populations enough to slow down the spread of the coronavirus, causing incarcerated people to get sick and die at a rate unparalleled in the general public,” wrote the organization in an article about policy change.

Some state lawmakers passed bills to protect incarcerated populations. The New Jersey legislature passed a bill that allowed for people with less than a year left on their sentences to be released up to eight months early. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order halting new intakes at state prisons and juvenile facilities.

But the slow progress has created a space for prison newspapers like News Inside to provide those incarcerated with information to protect themselves from the virus.

News Inside currently publishes three times a year, and Bartley hopes to increase publication rates and diversify to include Spanish-language editions.