“’Voices from inside’: An oral history of the prison publication Stateville Speaks“ by Brian Dolinar was published in the Chicago Reader (March 23, 2023).
Walking up and down the galleries, I’d hear some really deep conversations,” Renaldo Hudson said, recalling the origins of Stateville Speaks, the newspaper he founded in prison almost 20 years ago. “I would hear people talk about Socrates, the stuff that people don’t think happens in prison.”
Despite living under the oppressive conditions of prison, Hudson started thinking, “How do we begin to see the beauty that exists? People need to start to hear our brilliance. People need to see our creativity.”
“Hope is a human right,” Hudson is known to say often. “Once I grabbed ahold of hope, then I said, ‘How do we paint this?’” The answer was Stateville Speaks, a newspaper produced by and for people inside prison.
Started in 2004 at Stateville Correctional Center, about 30 miles southwest of Chicago, the newspaper is one of the longest-running prison publications in the country. It has overcome attempts by prison authorities to ban its publication. Today, Stateville Speaks is circulated widely throughout all Illinois prisons.
When Stateville Speaks began, the community organizing across prison walls was small. There were a handful of writers in prison who worked persistently to get their voices heard. Organizations to support them were few and underresourced. It was difficult for prison writers to find outlets to publish their works. Slowly, over the past two decades, attitudes have changed. Mass incarceration has become the civil rights issue of our era.
In early 2022, a new interim team started to assemble to give Stateville Speaks a reboot. I am one of the new editors, along with: Erica R. Meiners, coauthor of the new book, Abolition. Feminism. Now., along with Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, and Beth E. Richie; Maya Schenwar, coauthor of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms, and founder of the Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism; Orion Meadows, formerly incarcerated spoken word performance artist; and artists River Kerstetter and Benji Hart.
We released two issues of the new Stateville Speaks in summer 2022 and winter 2023. The revamped version reflects the common concerns of those incarcerated, as well as the growing attention to issues of women, queer, and trans people in prison. There are original artworks in bright color, poetry, investigative essays, law articles, updates on related legislation, and announcements from several organizations that now fight for prison reform in Illinois. You can read new and archived copies at statevillespeaks.org.
A journalist myself, I regularly write articles investigating the stories of my pen pals in prison who send me tips on the bizarre and brazen misdeeds of prison authorities. Most recently, I wrote an article for Truthout about guards who used prison labor to raise funds for golf tournaments and holiday parties, which we reprinted in Stateville Speaks.
Moving forward with Stateville Speaks, I wanted to first take a moment to look backward. I reached out to several people involved with the newspaper over the course of its history. I talked to Renaldo Hudson, who was granted clemency by Governor J.B. Pritzker in 2020 after serving 37 years in prison and is now education director at Illinois Prison Project. I interviewed his friend Bill Ryan, longtime advocate for those inside prison; Deirdre Battaglia, who was warden of Stateville in the early days of the paper; Alan Mills, attorney involved in two lawsuits against censorship of the newspaper; Cynthia Kobel, journalist and publisher; Vincent Galloway, the second editor of the paper; and Joseph Dole, legal editor.
Stateville Speaks has immediate name recognition by anyone who has done significant time in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). About 2,000 copies of each issue are sent inside, but a single newspaper passes through many hands in prison and has a circulation that is much wider.
Lockdown Prison Heart
The idea for Stateville Speaks evolved out of an essay contest that Hudson announced in 2003. People in prison were invited to submit essays on the topic, “Who am I? What can I do to be better?” The prompt came from a speech by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan that, Hudson recalled, “changed my life.” It was the first essay contest that people from across the state were allowed to participate in by IDOC.
There were 38 submissions, mostly handwritten, from people in six different Illinois prisons. The essays were collected into a book called Lockdown Prison Heart, proceeds from which went to an organization promoting reconciliation between victims and those who committed acts of violence.
The contest was won by Joseph Dole, who has since published three books, many articles, and is cofounder of Parole Illinois, an organization addressing the harms of extreme sentencing. For several years, Dole was listed as legal editor of Stateville Speaks. Back then, he was locked up in Tamms prison with Hudson’s brother, who told him about the contest. “It was the first essay I ever wrote in my life,” Dole said. “I ended up winning, which shocked the hell out of me.”
The contest made clear the apparent need for a regular publication to cultivate and feature writing by those behind bars.
This is our newspaper
The first issue had a bold banner that read “Stateville Speaks,” under which was the subtitle, “Voices from inside.” It was a 16-page newspaper printed in black-and-white. It included editorials, poetry, artwork, a legal page, and an article about the importance of exercising to prevent back pain.
“I want to spell relief,” Hudson, who was listed as editor in chief, wrote in the first issue of Stateville Speaks. “How do you spell relief? E-D-U-C-A-T-I-O-N! Well, brothers of Stateville, let me hear you! Positive views and negative views are welcome . . . THIS IS OUR NEWSPAPER!”
“I was freshly off death row,” Hudson told me. “I was a bit naïve and heartbroken. I was like, ‘It’s going to be so much easier now that we’re no longer on death row. We won’t be scrutinized in the way that they scrutinized us on death row.’” He was among the general population at Stateville, and yet there was little programming offered beyond basic GED classes. Hudson started talking to his friend Bill Ryan, who he’d met on death row, about publishing a newspaper.
Stateville Speaks was met with resistance from the beginning. When first approached with the idea, prison authorities expressed concern over the cost of publishing. Bill Ryan convinced CNN to donate computers and journalists to train the inside writers. Next, the prison claimed they could not afford to provide guards to watch the three editors as they worked on Stateville Speaks outside of their cells.
Undeterred, Ryan solicited individual donations from people on the outside and pressed up 200 copies of Stateville Speaks. His daughter Katy Ryan helped with copy editing in the early years. Along the way, Ryan notified prison officials of his intentions. In March 2004, Ryan mailed copies of Stateville Speaks to four people inside Stateville prison. The newspapers were returned to Ryan marked “unauthorized material.”
Ryan recalled the IDOC objected to one article that included mention of “the caliber of the gun used to shoot at people from the guard towers.”
Indeed, Vincent Galloway, in his essay, “How to Survive a Day in Prison,” warned others to watch for guards who would shoot from towers to break up fights. They aimed at the men with a “mini-14 high-powered rifle that shoots .223.”
From his cell in Pontiac prison, where he is now held, Galloway wrote to me, “I was very surprised it led to censorship. Bill had to take IDOC to court.”
Alan Mills from the Uptown People’s Law Center, intellectual property attorney Samuel Fifer, and lawyers at Loevy & Loevy filed a lawsuit that provided many of the details for this early history. IDOC settled the suit after two years in court. Mills remembered, “Basically it said they had to set up a procedure and establish time frames for censorship.”
The agreement also established that Stateville Speaks would be circulated at all Illinois prisons. “Ironically,” Mills said, “they said you can’t just send it to one institution. So we said, ‘We’ll send it to everybody, give everyone the same opportunity to read the newspaper.’” As a result, Stateville Speaks is today distributed throughout the entire Illinois prison system.
Something to be proud of
In March 2005, Deirdre “Dee” Battaglia was appointed warden at Stateville, the first woman to head an all-male maximum-security prison in Illinois. She quickly became known as the “good warden” after a news story appeared in the Chicago Tribune touting her reputation for fairness among the guys inside. Battaglia told me she remembered when Bill Ryan came to her to talk about Stateville Speaks:
“The first couple weeks I was there, this guy came in, he looked real gruff, he had a beard, he had shorts on that were hanging off him. The secretary told him we don’t talk to the public. I got up and said, ‘Who is this?’ Turns out, it’s Bill Ryan. ‘You don’t want to talk to this guy,’ the secretary said. I said, ‘We are public servants, we are the public.’ I talked to him; he’s running a mile a minute. He says, ‘We have this paper, Stateville Speaks.’”
Battaglia had been transferred from Dwight women’s prison where she was assistant warden of programs. She recalled that the women at Dwight had their own newspaper they ran from inside the prison, so she was open to Ryan’s idea. The previous warden at Stateville, Kevin Briley, was adamantly against it. Battaglia recalled that her predecessor believed if the newspaper were permitted, “Gangs would use it to talk to one another.” Battaglia said she felt that Stateville Speaks would be a good thing.
“I thought it was a communication tool that offenders could contribute to that would boost their self-esteem,” Battaglia said. “It was something they could be proud of. Most times, it was artistic in nature, with poems.”
The growth was amazing
Although there was pending litigation, Ryan got approval to send a second issue inside, which was printed in March 2005 on the first anniversary of the newspaper. Hudson had been transferred out of Stateville, and Vincent Galloway and Donald McDonald took over as editors.
Stateville Speaks served as an independent news source for those inside Illinois prisons as the population grew to its height of 49,000 people in 2011 (today, the number has dropped to around 29,000). There were 2,500 copies of the newspapers printed, with 2,000 of them going inside. “The growth of it was amazing,” Ryan recalled.
Funding for Stateville Speaks comes from private donations and $10 subscriptions from those incarcerated, but free copies are available to any incarcerated person if they write to us.
The IDOC has never provided funding for the publication. Taxpayer money went instead to paying for the IDOC to defend itself against lawsuits for censoring Stateville Speaks.
The April 2008 issue of Stateville Speaks featured the Tamms Year Ten campaign, which sought to close the prison at the far southern tip of Illinois. As the cover story reported, since Tamms prison had opened, the men there had “endured a decade of uninterrupted solitary confinement.” The campaign was bitterly opposed by the prison guards’ union. The Tamms issue never made it through the prison mailrooms.
A second lawsuit was filed against the IDOC by Alan Mills and Russell Ainsworth of Loevy & Loevy. It alleged that IDOC’s censorship of the April 2008 issue of Stateville Speaks violated the “First Amendment right to communicate with prisoners housed in the prisons operated by the Department.”
There was a constant struggle over content of the newspaper throughout its history that did not always result in lawsuits. If it didn’t come from the authorities, it came from self-censorship. “A lot of my essays never made it into Stateville Speaks,” Galloway told me, “because I was telling it like it is uncut—raw!”
In search of a home
Around this time, Stateville Speaks was looking for a permanent home. Cynthia Kobel, a rock ’n’ roll journalist, got involved with the newspaper. She had been a board member of the John Howard Association and participated in the campaign to shut down Tamms. In 2007, her family’s foundation, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Foundation, began financing the newspaper. In 2008, Kobel was listed as publisher, and she was named as a plaintiff in the recent lawsuit.
“Stateville Speaks was being done by different groups,” Kobel remembered. “Loyola University put out an issue. Then we ended up at Northeastern. That seemed to work out well. It was an easy place to donate the money.” Indeed, students at Loyola helped produce a special edition in January 2009 despite censorship of the previous issue. In August 2009, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) put out its own edition.
Northeastern agreed to house Stateville Speaks in the justice studies department. Professor Kingsley Clarke taught a class and recruited students to work on the paper. “If it wouldn’t have been for Kingsley Clarke,” Bill Ryan said, “I don’t know what we would have done.”
A NEIU graduate student in justice studies, Gayle Tulipano, took over as editor in 2010. Students responded to letters from people in prison. For the next ten years, Tulipano worked tirelessly as editor and kept the publication going. She recently stepped down to pursue other career opportunities. In 2018, the Montgomery Foundation ended their support. But thanks to NEIU’s justice studies department, Stateville Speaks still has a home.
“At a time when so many publications exist only online, a lot of news is inaccessible to people who are incarcerated,” said Maya Schenwar, who recently got involved in the publication. “Not only is it a print publication directly for incarcerated readers, but it also centrally publishes incarcerated writers. As a journalist, editor, and writer who has covered prisons throughout my career—and as the bereaved sibling of a long-incarcerated person who loved writing—this publication holds deep meaning for me. The world is very lucky that it’s still around after all these years.”