Inmate publication aims to be voice of CSP-Solano
Photo and story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
It could be any newsroom. The coffee’s brewing, the ideas are flying and the laughs are plenty, but flowing underneath it all is a mission that’s no joke to this team of writers: to tell truthful, powerful stories in a lasting way.
Really, the only difference between this newsroom and a newspaper or magazine office is the setting – these men are part of the Solano Vision, a quarterly publication created and produced by inmates at California State Prison-Solano (SOL).
“There are so many rumors, and there is so much hearsay, that we like to document and give articles that have actual factual truth to them,” said Dave Ewart, the Vision’s administrative editor. “We feel that we’re the avenue to do that through.”
The Vision began when Editor-in-Chief Cole Bienek rounded up a team of writers to contribute.
“I just went around and grabbed these guys and said, ‘Please write,’” Bienek explained.
And they did. The first issue published in January 2014, featuring stories about SOL’s education programs, self-help programs and even a few book reviews.
Members of SOL’s Education Department serve as advisers for the Vision, including Principal Kenya Williams and teachers Rudolph Muldong, Tara Foster and Catherine Resurreccion. Because California inmates do not have Internet access, any Internet research is performed by staff, who have also provided space and some equipment for the Vision.
“I think it is important for the inmate population to have a voice,” Williams said. “The Solano Vision is that voice. It is my hope that the Solano Vision provides information, becomes a resource to reference and a voice in the night. I want it to be a meaningful and thoughtful publication.”
In an editorial introducing the Vision, Bienek outlines the team’s hopes for the brand-new publication.
“Prisoners share the common human desire to be heard, and to have concerns, hopes, dreams and fears represented in a meaningful way,” he wrote, adding that declining population numbers have contributed to the addition of more rehabilitative programming and self-help opportunities, helping many men prepare to return home.
“Solano is beginning to develop its own personality, its own ethic,” Bienek added. “It is becoming a place where we are able to step away from the madness, wash the sleep from our eyes and awaken to a different view.”
The Vision’s team of writers and editors are one example of the diversity SOL is known for. The men are from different backgrounds and experiences, both in and out of prison. Bienek and writer Kris Himmelberger have experience as contributors to the San Quentin News, Photo Editor Steve Drown comes with an eye for quality photojournalism, Ewart has managed hundreds of people in a professional educational setting, Managing Editor Wendell Bigelow offers both analytical legal expertise and the creativity that comes with being a jazz drummer, and Copy Editor Greg Coglianese has the patience and attention to detail necessary to keep the Vision organized. On top of that, Coglianese adds, “I’m the fun stuff guy,” bringing poetry, puzzles, riddles and trivia to the pages of the Vision.
A Journalist’s Guild rounds out the crew, with several men contributing articles from sports and entertainment to staff news and commentary on life in prison and hopes for the future.
“The biggest pleasure I’ve had is working with this group of guys who are sitting at the table right now,” Drown said, adding that because each writer is heavily involved in different programs at SOL, they’re able to bring voices from all corners of the institution.
Notably, the Visions’ third edition featured a story on James “Alex” Alexander, a former SOL inmate who paroled and was recognized by the Dalai Lama as one of the “Unsung Heroes of Compassion.” Bienek’s story about Alexander was published not only in the Vision, but also in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Rehabilitation Today newsletter and by the Alternatives to Violence Project.
“I think it’s done a tremendous job,” Himmelberger said, pointing out that as the Vision continues to grow, more help will be needed from both inside and outside the prison.
Inmate-run publications are not new to California state prisons; the San Quentin News’ roots date back to the 1920s. Of late, several institutions have introduced newsletters, including R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego and Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Newsletters go through administrative review from their institutions and headquarters, and are recognized by CDCR as positive programs that help prepare inmates for successful returns to their communities by fostering writing and communication skills.
Bigelow explained that “newsletter” might not be the best term to describe the Vision. As a relatively new and quickly evolving publication, the Vision is still developing into what it will become – a journal of social change? True stories of redemption? A chronicle of programs, happenings and changes at SOL? Or – and perhaps most likely – a compilation of all of those things.
“One of our goals is to try to ensure longevity through organic interest from people on this side of the wall to people on the outside of the wall,” Bigelow said.
The hope for the Vision is to develop into a larger program with outside volunteers to serve as advisers and help in the production process – similar to the San Quentin News, which draws professional journalists and students to its office on a regular basis, along with hosting forums featuring lawmakers, educators and activists. Like the San Quentin News, the Vision operates without state funding, so donations of time and equipment are welcome. People interested in learning more about the Solano Vision should call (707) 451-0182.
The Vision will continue to grow, and change, as writers join and leave, some for other projects, some to go home. Bienek himself has had to step back in large part from the Vision, as he is enrolled in the time-intensive Offender Mentor Certification Program, training to become a certified substance abuse counselor. But, thanks to the Vision’s dedicated team, he’s confident the publication’s mission will not fade.
“I always wanted it to be a voice of everybody who is here,” he said. “The people who live here, the people who work here, the people who visit here.”