Tevlin: The Prison Mirror is a newspaper like no other

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 3, 2012 - 6:57 PM

In some ways, it's like every small-town newspaper. The current issue features a well-researched story on the issue of felons and voting, a piece on an ice cream social fundraiser and a sophisticated chart with the results of a mock presidential election.

The publication also showcases impressive artwork, essays, book reviews and an interview with a poet. But the amazing thing is not that it is celebrating 125 years of operation, but that it is reported, edited and designed by prisoners.

The Prison Mirror, the oldest jailhouse newspaper in America, was founded by inmates who pooled their money back in 1887 and persuaded a new warden that it could be a valuable way to share life on the inside. Founding members included an infamous array of outlaws, including Cole Younger and his brothers.

The small staff of the Mirror recently put together an impressive 23-page "commemorative issue" that tells the story of the paper in words, photos and drawings.

It's a lively history of a publication that has been alternately praised and condemned since its inception, accused of being both a negative outlet for carping criminals or a mouthpiece for Stillwater prison administrators.

Shortly after it was introduced, the Minneapolis Tribune had this to say: "A careful examination of the recent issues of the Prison Mirror compels the frank opinion that it ought to be summarily suppressed or else reformed in all its departments."

No one is more aware of the delicate job of writing about prison, from prison, than current Senior Editor Matt Gretz.

"It's the best job in the prison, and it's the hardest," said Gretz.

Before meeting Gretz, a slim, soft-spoken man who once worked in marketing for the Chicago Tribune, I thought I had a tough audience. But he has to somehow write about crucial issues in a tense environment with inmates on one side and the prison administration looking over his shoulder. Occasionally inmates misinterpret a story, or think he's siding with the warden, and Gretz has had to have inmate gang leaders talk them down.

Gretz, who took the job shortly after arriving at Stillwater, is doing more than 20 years for murder.

"I hesitated because I didn't know the prison and nobody knew me," said Gretz. "There are various levels of skepticism here and inmates will check you out before they will open up to you."

Though all stories are reviewed by prison staffers and often Warden Michelle Smith, he said he is given fairly wide discretion on topics, including those that criticize how the prison operates.

With the help of more-experienced staffers, Gretz has convinced inmates to tell their stories, including a cover piece in March called "Big Time." It's a fascinating interview of inmates with 20 years or more behind bars. Other hot topics are food, health care and dealing with guards.

For Gretz and three other staffers, it's more than a full-time job. They cover meetings, events and sports on weekends, just like reporters on the outside.

"I really respect the place the Prison Mirror is now," said Gretz. "This would never have survived if it was just, 'I hate this, I hate that.' This is a negative place anyway, so you need positive stories too."

Gretz said he "probably puts more time into this than is healthy," but it also seems a way for him to move from a personal past he still can't bring himself to discuss. Researching the history of the paper evokes just a little of that history when Gretz reflects.

"If we look back on our own histories, they seemed random," said Gretz. "But they are not random, they are fixed. Everything has a cause and effect. Our actions have consequences."

As Gretz's editorial in the anniversary issue explained:

"Today in Stillwater Prison, in the quiet of night, minds not at peace replay the past. Interrogate the past. ... It is in this way the history of the Prison Mirror reflects our personal history. Ours isn't a pretty history, but we sure do have stories to tell."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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