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Inmate Publications at State Institutions

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Cover of the Prison Mirror

The cover of the February 2010 issue of the Prison Mirror, the longest-running prisoners’ publication in the United States. Available on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society library as “Stillwater. PRISON MIRROR.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, inmates at the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater began publishing a newsletter written and edited by fellow prisoners. For the first time in US history, inmates at a state institution had their own regular publication to discuss news, share literary and artistic works, and organize for institutional change. Their newsletter, the Prison Mirror, served as a model for similar publications produced by inmates at nearly all of Minnesota’s state hospitals, correctional facilities, and state schools.

In 1876, three members of the infamous James–Younger Gang pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota. They each received life sentences of hard labor at Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater. A former newspaper editor named Lew P. Shoonmaker, who was also incarcerated at Stillwater, later approached one of the gang members (Cole Younger) who was working as a librarian and convinced him to help start a publication for prisoners.

Thanks to donations from the rest of the gang, and months of pleading with the warden, the first issue of the Prison Mirror was published in August 1887. In their opening remarks, members of the editorial team declared that the newsletter would serve as an outlet for prisoner writing and journalism. It featured poetry, advice, and news columns. They also promised that all profits from subscription fees would go towards either keeping the paper running or funding the prison library.

This publication became the model for dozens of newsletters and journals produced by inmates (all inhabitants of state institutions were called “inmates” until the 1970s) of nearly every state prison, hospital, and school. Like the Prison Mirror, these publications set out to create a vehicle for inmates to communicate with one another; to build up writing, editorial, design, and printing skills; or simply to express themselves. Almost all included some mixture of the elements included in the Prison Mirror: news, art, poetry, stories, jokes, puzzles, and advice.

As time progressed, the various publications diverged from the model set by the Prison Mirror and forged their own path. The Reformatory Pillar, of St. Cloud’s Minnesota State Reformatory, was generally more literary and religious, with the longest sections reserved for short stories, poetry, and Christian moral tales. Some institutions had two or more publications, each with their own style and character. At Rochester State Hospital, the newsletter R.U.S.H. was the outlet for journalistic writing, while the Elm Leaf published more creative works, such as poetry and stories.

These newsletters are a window into the routines and intimate lives of people living in Minnesota’s state institutions. Faribault State Hospital’s Voice of the Women and Men, for instance, published personal recollections of interesting events, like a circus that performed for residents. The poems and stories provide insight into the experience of being institutionalized, while the journalism helps to articulate the main concerns of inmates at the time.

The newsletters also served as a platform for inmates to share their artistic work. Usually, the cover art was designed by inmates. In some publications, a section was reserved for drawings. More often, drawings were incorporated into the margins of the texts, used as a frame, or even printed lightly as the background.

Censorship has always been present. Every publication required approval from the warden or the superintendent. In some cases, the content or style of a newsletter suddenly changed after a head editor or a superintendent stepped down. At first, the Elm Leaf published many articles on Christianity. After its first editor stepped down in 1958, it featured more journalistic columns. Some inmates expressed hope that their writing would help to move them closer to their release, which could have also resulted in self-censorship.

Some editorial groups were more exclusive and required writers to attend meetings before being allowed to publish. Hastings State Hospital’s Hospitality required writers to join the Hospitality Club in order to participate. Faribault State Hospital’s publications were produced by specific writing and recreation classes. Others accepted submissions from anyone interested. It is impossible to know in each case what role censorship or favoritism played.

The newsletters reflect the racial and gendered attitudes or prejudices of their editors and writers. Hospitality published cover art and featured stories with stereotyped images of Native American, Asian, and Black people on multiple occasions. The Reformatory Pillar published an article in 1905 arguing for the benefits of slavery. In contrast, newsletters that more often had Black and Native American authors and editors, like Shakopee’s Reflector, Red Wing’s Winged’ition, and Stillwater’s Prison Mirror regularly featured author submissions discussing experiences of racism in confinement.

Many publications helped facilitate political or legal organizing campaigns, however small they may have been. Flight Deck, a patient newsletter produced at Hastings State Hospital, successfully advocated for creating new patient organizing groups to stake more of a claim in their treatment and conditions. Sometimes, demands for more space or new types of entertainment were printed. The Prison Mirror and the Reflector, the newsletter produced by inmates of the Women’s State Reformatory in Shakopee, informed (and continues to inform) prisoners about their rights while incarcerated. The publications also help keep them and their struggles visible to both other prisoners and the outside world.

In addition to providing entertainment and informative content, the publications also allowed inmates to communicate with one another. These exchanges were so widespread by the 1930s that letters came into the bigger Minnesotan inmate publications from as far away as Australia and China. The most common forms of communication were reviews of other institutional publications, which often involved comparing works about daily life to those at their own facilities. Sometimes, an article from another institution would be republished.

The first issue of the inmate publication from Fergus Falls State Hospital, published in 1933, was without a title. Within a month, readers from the Prison Mirror suggested the title the Weekly Pulse, which was adopted for the second issue. The speed of the acceptance demonstrates the network’s wide reach. These communications sometimes resulted in the spread of shared concepts. “Joy-flinging” (a term meaning “to spread positivity even in difficult circumstances”) originated in East Coast sanitariums and, by the 1920s, was used regularly in the Pine Knot, the newsletter for residents of the Minnesota State Sanatorium in Cass County.

The publications exchange had another effect: showing people living in different state institutions that they shared common experiences. Numerous writers in prisons attest to the feeling that they are perceived as “insane,” while others in psychiatric facilities refer to their confinement as “prison.”

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Coverall. Faribault State Hospital, Faribault, 1950–1971. Faribault State School and Hospital publications, 1950–1977 (box 119.C.4.2F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00929.xml

Echoes. Gillette State Hospital for Crippled Children, St. Paul, November 22, 1944. Gillette State Hospital for Crippled Children miscellaneous records, 1898–1976 (box 109.I.5.5B). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00067.xml

Elm Leaf. Rochester State Hospital, Rochester, 1950–1961. Rochester State Hospital publications, 1939–1982 (box 114.B.11.6F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr01027.xml

Fawcett, Kirsten. “A Colorful History of The Prison Mirror, America's Oldest Continuously Operated Prison Newspaper.” Mental Floss, January 2, 2018.
https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/502636/colorful-history-prison-mirror-americas-oldest-continuously-operated-prison-newspaper

Flight Deck. Hastings State Hospital, Hastings, 1962–1968. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as RC445.M6 H3.

Hospital Highlights. Hastings State Hospital, Hastings, 1944– . Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as FOLIO RC445.M6 H3.

Hospitality. Hastings State Hospital, Hastings, 1952–1961. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as RC445.M6 H32.

Lakeside News. Moose Lake Sanitorium, Moose Lake, 1939–1971. Moose Lake State Hospital newsletters, 1939–1995 (boxes 106.I.16.4F and 106.I.16.5B). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr01102.xml

Minnesota Corrections Association 85th Anniversary: A Timeline of Crime, Corrections, and MCA. St. Paul: Minnesota Corrections Association, 2018.
http://www.mn-ca.org/resources/Documents/85th%20Anniversary%20Research%20-%20Old%20Forums%20and%20Conference%20Program%20Books/MCA%2085th%20Anniversary%20Timeline_web.pdf

Morris, James McGrath. Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Pine Knot. Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives, Walker, 1916–1925. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as FOLIO RC313.M6 A3.

(Prison) Mirror. Minnesota Territorial Prison, Stillwater, 1887–2019. Available on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society library as “Stillwater. PRISON MIRROR.”

“The Prison Mirror, a Newspaper, Marks its 100th Year.” New York Times, August 11, 1987.
https://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/11/us/the-prison-mirror-a-newspaper-marks-its-100th-year.html

R.L.M.O.S.N. [Red Wing Liberation Movement One Shot News]. Minnesota Training School for Boys, Red Wing, 1979–1980. Minnesota State Training School for Boys published records, 1919–1999 (box 111.K.11.2F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Reflector. Women’s State Reformatory, Shakopee, 1935–2019. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as HV 9305 .M62S5 .R3 v.1-3 in FOLIO.

(Reformatory) Pillar. Minnesota State Reformatory, St. Cloud, 1905–2015. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as FOLIO HV9305.M62 S2 and HV9305.M62 S27.

Riverside. Minnesota State Reform School, Red Wing, 1893–1967. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as FOLIO HV9105.M62 A1r and on microfilm as 2063 1936–1940.

R.U.S.H. Rochester State Hospital, Rochester, 1971–1974. Rochester State Hospital publications, 1939–1982 (box 114.B.11.6F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr01027.xml

“Salutatory.” Prison Mirror 1, no. 1 (August 10, 1887): 1. Available on microfilm at the Minnesota Historical Society library as “Stillwater. PRISON MIRROR.”

Terrace Topics. Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives, Walker, 1933–1939. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as RC313.M6 G5328.

Voice of the Men/The Voice of the Women and the Men. Faribault State Hospital, Faribault. 1969–1973. Faribault State Hospital publications, 1950–1997 (box 119.C.4.2F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00929.xml

Weekly Pulse. Fergus Falls State Hospital, Fergus Falls, 1933–1985.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00929.xml

Winged’ition. Minnesota State Training School for Boys, Red Wing, 1969–1976. Minnesota State Training School for Boys published records, 1919–1999 (box 111.K.11.2F). State Archives, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/rwsts16.pdf

Related Images

Cover of the Prison Mirror
Cover of the Prison Mirror
Cover of the Reformatory Pillar
Cover of the Reformatory Pillar
Cover of the Pine Knot
Cover of the Pine Knot
Cover of the Weekly Pulse
Cover of the Weekly Pulse
Poem in the Weekly Pulse
Poem in the Weekly Pulse
Poem in the Reflector
Poem in the Reflector
Cover art for Echoes
Cover art for Echoes
Cover art for the Coverall
Cover art for the Coverall
A calendar in the Coverall
A calendar in the Coverall
Cover art for Hospitality
Cover art for Hospitality
Cover of the Voice of the Women and Men
Cover of the Voice of the Women and Men
Cover of the Voice of the Women and Men
Cover of the Voice of the Women and Men
Poem published in Winged’ition
Poem published in Winged’ition
 Image for the hundred-year-anniversary edition of the Prison Mirror
 Image for the hundred-year-anniversary edition of the Prison Mirror

Turning Point

In 1887, prisoners of the Minnesota Territorial Prison in Stillwater found the Prison Mirror, the first regular inmate publication in the United States.

Chronology

1887

Prisoners at the Minnesota Territorial Prison in Stillwater found the Prison Mirror, the first regular publication by inmates at a Minnesota state institution.

1893

The staff of the Minnesota State Reform School in Red Wing publish the first volume of the Riverside, in which they allow a few of the juvenile inmates to write columns and reports.

1904

Inmates at St. Cloud’s Minnesota State Reformatory begin publishing their monthly newsletter, the Reformatory Pillar, in June.

1914

The Prison Mirror resumes publication at the Minnesota Correctional Facility, which replaced the Minnesota Territorial Prison.

1916

In Cass County, patients at Ah-Gwah-Ching (the Minnesota Sanatorium for Consumptives) begin publishing their monthly newsletter, the Pine Knot.

1933

Patients and staff at Fergus Falls State Hospital print the first issue of the Weekly Pulse on February 18. Patients and staff at the Glen Lake Sanitorium begin publishing Terrace Topics in September.

1935

Inmates of the Women’s State Reformatory in Shakopee publish the first edition of the Reflector under the supervision of superintendent Estelle Jamieson and teacher Mary Anne Toner.

1939

Patients and staff at Moose Lake Sanitorium begin publishing Lakeside News on August 16.

1944

Patients and staff at Hastings State Hospital publish Now and Then on January 19. The residents of the Gillette State Hospital for Crippled Children publish the first and only edition of the Echoes newsletter in November.

1950

The first edition of the Coverall is published without a title by inmates of the Minnesota School and Colony in Faribault in October with a contest to name the journal.

1952

The first issue of Hospitality, an irregular newsletter written and produced primarily by patients at Hastings State Hospital, is published.

1958

Patients at Rochester State Hospital publish the first volume of the Elm Leaf aimed towards other patients.

1967

Frank Elli, a former writer and editor for the Prison Mirror, publishes a novel called The Riot, which is later made into a movie.

1969

A writing class at Faribault State Hospital begins publishing the Voice of the Men. Inmates of the Minnesota Training School for Boys in Red Wing publish the first edition of Winged’ition.

1970

The editors of the newsletter Voice of the Men, published by the adult education class at Faribault State Hospital, change its name to Voice of Women and Men.

1971

Patients at Rochester State Hospital publish issue one of R.U.S.H. (the Magazine for U of Rochester State Hospital) on July 6, which often included a section for reports from the “Mentally Retarded Unit.”

1987

The staff of the Prison Mirror publish a hundred-year anniversary issue with a special supplement reflecting on the progress made and challenges faced by prison journalists.

2009

The staff of the Reflector at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee publish a celebratory seventy-fifth anniversary edition.