Warren Allen returned to his classroom recently and sat in front of the computer shaking his head. Allen had been assigned to write a news story on a lecture by best-selling author, preacher and college professor Michael Eric Dyson.
Allen decided to focus on memories Dyson shared of his younger brother, who died in prison in 2019, some 30 years into his life sentence for murder. Beginning his article with Dyson talking about his brother, Allen thought, would grab readers’ attention. He leaned in and slowly began typing.
Allen, 37, is among about a dozen D.C. jail inmates who are writers, columnists or photographers for a monthly newspaper called Inside Scoop. Jail officials launched it a year ago as part of the facility’s education program. The jail is one of a handful of correctional facilities across the country to publish a news publication written by inmates.
Amy Lopez, who joined the D.C. Department of Corrections three years ago as its deputy director of college and career readiness, brought the idea with her when she came to Washington after working at a Texas prison that also had an inmate publication.
“This enables the inmates to have a voice and learn new skills, as well as appreciate journalism,” she said.
The inmates say Inside Scoop gives them a way to express themselves while also learning new skills. “This strengthens our creativity and lets our words be heard,” said Allen, who was convicted of murder 16 years ago and is now hoping for a chance at early release.
The six-page Inside Scoop usually includes from 10 to 16 articles and is printed on 8½ by 11 sheets. One recent issue included an article about “Date with Dads” night, a semiformal father-daughter dinner and dance at the facility. There are pieces about criminal justice reform and jail programs. There are also poems and advice columns, including one about finances.
One popular column is the “Canteen Kitchen,” written by an inmate who works in the jail’s kitchen, featuring recipes that can be whipped up in a microwave — which inmates can use. The dishes have included spicy chicken marinara over rice and salmon patties made with salmon flakes and mayonnaise and seasoned with chili soup.
The inmates generate their own story ideas, Lopez said. The stories are edited by senior corrections officials including Lopez, department director Quincy L. Booth and Lennard Johnson, the warden. Each article, Lopez said, is reviewed not only for spelling and grammar, but also to make sure no messages are hidden within the text or photographs that could be used to incite criminal activity inside or outside of the jail.
The effort launched with five writers and is now at 15. Another 40 inmates are on a waiting list, Lopez said. There are plans to put the publication on the Internet so inmates’ families can read it.
To be selected for the staff, inmates must have a clean disciplinary record while incarcerated. Each applicant’s background is reviewed to ensure, for example, that no rival gang members wind up working together.
Their newsroom is in one of the classrooms in the facility. Writers work on 10 desktop Dell computers, purchased via an $80,000 educational grant, and another five Apple MacBook Pro laptops that were donated. All of the computers function solely as word processors. One staff computer used for the program has an Internet connection. It’s used only by Lopez or other teachers to help the inmates conduct research for their stories, she said.
A local publishing company has a contract to print the publication. After copies are dropped off, jail employees distribute them to the 1,800 inmates and staff.
At a recent story meeting, a dry-erase story board with a list of stories was posted in the classroom. Tamika Gittens, a corrections employee and one of the instructors, had the inmates design mock-ups of the front page to teach them about layout and story placement based on importance.
One by one, each inmate stood before their peers, posted their mock-ups on a bulletin board and explained why they chose certain stories and photos.
Gittens and the inmates critiqued each display. Then the class applauded as Gittens with a “who’s next?” summoned the next presenter.
All but two of the writers are men. One of the two women recently penned a story about how many female inmates believe they are treated unfairly, compared with men in the jail.
Kenard E. Johnson, 54, who was convicted of burglarizing a downtown commercial business earlier this year, is working on a story on a beat he created: inmates ages 50 and older. Johnson said he thinks the criminal justice system fails to address the needs of many aging inmates, which may include drug abuse, homelessness, mental illness and recidivism.
Another writer, Kenneil “Cool” Cole, 25, is scheduled to go to trial this year in the 2018 fatal shooting of his roommate, a case in which he pleaded not guilty. Cole wrote an opinion piece about the proliferation of gun violence in the city and said he hopes his piece makes the next issue. The editors, who also publish articles submitted by other jail inmates, often hold stories for later editions based on space availability.
Michael Woody, who was convicted in 1997 in a fatal shooting, has been transported back to the jail from a federal prison and is awaiting a resentencing hearing. Woody, 44, was part of the publication’s inaugural issue and is now finishing up an article he co-wrote with another inmate on a recent lecture inmates heard via Skype from Oxford University about poetry as a social awareness tool. He joked about how he and his co-author have to decide whose byline — a term he recently learned — will appear first on their story.
Allen was also moved to the D.C. jail from a federal prison to attend court hearings. He is seeking to have his sentence reduced under a D.C. law called the Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act. Part of the city’s recent push for criminal justice reform, it applies to people who were 17 or younger at the time of their offense, spent at least 15 years in prison and have made efforts to rehabilitate themselves.
Allen and three other members of a then-Northwest D.C. street gang were part of a 2000 gunfight that resulted in a woman being fatally struck by a stray bullet, according to court records. Allen was 17 at the time of the crime. He has a resentencing hearing scheduled for June.
Writing for Inside Scoop has given Allen, a former go-go band musician and songwriter, another way at reaching people with his words. “This has been amazing. I feel free,” he said. “I no longer feel inferior. I can now be heard.”
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