Stateville Speaks Featured in the Chicago Reader

“’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 JournalismOrion 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

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.

Unauthorized material 

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.”

An Open Letter to Governor J.B. Pritzker

Dear Governor Pritzker,

Governor J.B. Pritzker

People in Illinois prisons and jails will die in the coming weeks if the state does not take responsible action. They are living in crowded conditions with no access to soap or hand sanitizers. Medical care is costly and inadequate.

In a briefing on March 18, you said you were considering the release of people in prison for nonviolent offenses. “There are some very dangerous people who should not be considered, but there are others that are very vulnerable and who have committed some non-violent offense and who should be first in line if we were to do something like that.” These people should certainly be released.

But we have to do more. In state custody are 84 men and women who are over 70 and 684 people over 60. They are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

The following individuals deserve immediate review, along with many others who are at serious risk. Arkee Chaney, 73, who has been imprisoned for 33 years as a result of three strikes legislation. Paula Fiedler, 67, who has multiple medical issues. Janet Jackson, sentenced to life for conspiring to kill her abusive husband, also with multiple medical issues. Pearl Tuma. Mason Burl. Howard Wiley. They are elderly, rehabilitated, and in need of immediate protection.

Elderly people and people with chronic health issues as well as others will die in prison because of our inaction in the face of a pandemic. Please, Governor, respond to vulnerable citizens in prison.

Bill Ryan
(on behalf of over 80 different individuals and organizations)

An Open Letter to Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Dear Cardinal Cupich,

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

We hope and pray that you are well and weathering the current storm of pandemic COVID-19 illness that has already sickened and taken so many from us. We join you in praying for all, especially our seniors and those most at risk – cancer patients, pregnant women, HIV patients, and all with compromised immune systems. As was recently noted by Illinois Department of Health Director, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, at a news conference with the governor, people confined to prison and nursing homes are especially at risk, because self-isolation is not an option for them.

Catholics and the Chicago community look to you and the Church for leadership and hope in this troubled time. We are asking you to join with us in asking Governor J. B. Pritzker to act to release elderly and at-risk prison inmates to the care of their families wherever possible. In most cases these are men and women who have served decades behind bars already and in no way pose a danger to society.

We are heartened by the steadfastness of Pope Francis and the Church in the struggle against the Death Penalty. Now we are challenged to save the lives of these men and women who are crammed into prisons and have no recourse except to accept their fate unless we all act.

Will you join us in appealing to Gov. Pritzker to act to release these vulnerable men and women? Thank you, and God bless you.

Sincerely yours,

Bertha Escamilla, Ted Pearson, Bill Ryan, and Armanda Shackelford
Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR)
(on behalf of over 80 different individuals and organizations)

Editorial: Stateville Speaks Needs Your Help

The main goal of Stateville Speaks has always been to provide a voice to those incarcerated, especially in Illinois, by allowing a platform for them to share it through their writings. It has also allowed us to disseminate information about laws and policies that may be of concern to those on the inside.

Over the past several years Stateville Speaks has been able to operate through the generous funding of Cynthia Kobel and the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Foundation. The newsletter has been able to be widely distributed because of her commitment to incarcerated individuals and their need to be heard. Additionally, because of her support, we have been able to provide no-cost subscriptions for any interested inmate.

Unfortunately, moving forward, Ms. Kobel and the Foundation will no longer be able to fund Stateville Speaks. Continue reading “Editorial: Stateville Speaks Needs Your Help”

The Push for Parole

Artwork by David Rivera.

By Shari Stone-Mediatore

On Thursday, November 8, 2018, the Illinois state legislature held a public hearing to discuss the issue of bringing a system of parole to Illinois. This was a subject-matter-only hearing. However, by January, Representative Rita Mayfield plans to have parole legislation ready to present and will hold another hearing to discuss that legislation.

In her introduction, Representative Mayfield indicated that she only learned there was no system of discretionary parole in Illinois during a public debate delivered by the Stateville Debate Team.

Representative Mayfield did an excellent job of chairing the hearing. Unfortunately, only a few legislators attended (probably because people are recovering from the activities of the recent election). Nonetheless, Representative Mayfield, along with co-chairs Representative LaShawn Ford and Representative Art Turner, effectively moderated the panels and asked pointed questions. Another legislator and staff-person listened attentively.

We filled the room with about 30 advocates for parole from all walks of life. We had plenty of people prepared to speak on behalf of parole; however, a few minutes before the hearing began, the legislators informed us that only 5 people would be able to present testimony on behalf of parole. Continue reading “The Push for Parole”

Save our United States Children!

By Willie Scales

Dear Parents,

Our society and justice system never take into consideration that children are not yet fully developed emotionally or psychologically and that most have not received a proper education.

From one mistake, we label them a threat and “menaces to society”. We conclude that juvenile offenders will never contribute anything worthwhile to society. But how can we make this determination against our United States youth?

Continue reading “Save our United States Children!”

The Rehabilitation Initiative

By Charles Childs

Does anyone notice what’s terribly wrong in Illinois prisons? I’ll tell you, in my opinion, not enough energy is being invested into the fight to bring back parole. There’s an inside joke that even suggests that the dominant conversations around Illinois prisons has been reduced to four main topics: 1) Does anyone know what’s for chow tonight? 2) …when we going back to commissary? 3)…what’s coming on TV tonight? And 4) …when we coming off lockdown? I disagree. However, while we’ve been distracted by whatever distractions that has been distracting us, ‘everyone else’ somehow has gained control of the narrative about us. My question is why isn’t our voice the loudest?

Continue reading “The Rehabilitation Initiative”

Why Do Incarcerated Lives Matter?

By Sherrell Towns

Incarcerated lives matter for a multitude of reasons beginning with the fact that prisoners account for and make up an absentee segment of society, while prison itself merely serves as storage space for warehousing society’s outcasts – the men and women who find themselves incarcerated.

The obvious reason incarcerated lives matter is that every sentence pronounced is neither a death sentence nor a term of natural life. Continue reading “Why Do Incarcerated Lives Matter?”

#Team Freedom Proposal Introduction

By Elbonie Burnside

This proposal is written with the concerns of the overcrowding in Illinois prisons in mind. # Team Freedom understands due to the seriousness of particular crimes a certain requirement of measures must be taken into account. However, the Illinois Constitution Article 1, Section 11 states: All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense with the objective of returning the offender to useful citizenship. In order for the percentage of criminal activity to drop, both lawmakers and breakers need to realize that we all fall short of perfection and the human thing to do is change for the better. Continue reading “#Team Freedom Proposal Introduction”