The staff of The Pioneer is looking for God. They just don’t know where the divine is hiding.
While their search is physically limited to Facility C of the Kern Valley State Prison, they know they haven’t been totally abandoned here. They look for the omnipotent in the crevices of the walls in their cells, the sprouting grass drenched in inmate sweat in the yard and the barbed-wire fence that, under the right circumstances, catches the light of the sun to form a spectacular halo.
The closest The Pioneer gets to the creator of all things is through a keyboard.
They are all amateur writers but their discovery of the written word is akin to man learning of fire. When a writer discovers the power to create meaning and beauty out of the words they can press onto a page, it seems nigh impossible to pull them away from the craft.
Started in December 2014 by two inmates, The Pioneer is the sole newspaper at the prison. The first issue was a single typewritten sheet of paper covering a facility fundraiser for a youth baseball program. After it was presented to the facility captain at the time, 30 copies were created for distribution within the prison. It was a quarterly pamphlet that developed into a monthly newsletter, said Lt. John Melvin, Kern Valley's public information officer.
Throughout the history of the paper, the inmate staff has fluctuated between four to seven members who write articles, editorials and generate artwork for the publication. The pieces of paper are handed out in an informal way. Inmates who are interested in getting a copy have their name jotted on a notepad and an issue will be handed to them by the Pioneer staff as soon as it’s printed.
They don’t get paid for what they create but they still publish an issue every month detailing events occurring at Kern Valley, highlighting different inmates for accomplishments, sharing poetry or art and publishing advice for rehabilitation. Topics that are off-limits include petty gossip and glorification of prison politics.
The newspaper has a code that it lives and dies by: to connect readers to what is important, beautiful and real.
Currently the newsroom consists of editor-in-chief Brandon Menard, managing editor Jason Harris, senior editor Neil Stone and Richard Sanderson, the artist and staff writer. Not to mention the numerous prison faculty that check the content of each issue.
The paper isn’t all just fluff. There are times when the paper will serve as watchdogs for their peers and for the establishment around them. They’ve exposed drugs being exchanged in the prison and inmates cheating in classes, but most importantly, The Pioneer serves as a mirror to readers.
“We’re pushing a novel idea,” Stone said. “People say we’re doing work for the cops. We just want some of these guys to feel acknowledged for the good they do.”
Sometimes a letter from the the Pioneer staff will be featured; these tackle the world at large and have covered topics such as mass shootings, war and, in the most recent issue, COVID-19. The letter focuses on what is immediately tangible to the inmates — their own mental well-being.
“Because so much of the issue is out of our hands, it is important to deal with the emotions associated with the problem,” Stone said. “The idea behind healthy coping is to fix the problems you can and come to terms with those you cannot.”
The Pioneer isn’t the only newspaper produced in a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facility. The San Quentin News was previously the only prison newspaper publication produced with the walls of a penitentiary, Lt. Sam Robinson, San Quentin's public information officer, wrote in an email. Serving as the pinnacle of what can be achieved with inmate newspapers, it received the Society of Professional Journalists 2017 Excellence in Community Journalism award.
Robinson oversees everything having to do with The San Quentin News. He’s become a supporter for inmate-run newspapers because he sees it as a form of expression and celebration of achievements.
“The editorial board and writers believe that mainstream media focuses on the sensational stories about incarceration and what that experience is and they fail to tell the story about how people are working hard to rehabilitate and or reclaim the person they aspire and hope to be,” Robinson said.
“These stories of achievement encourage other incarcerated men and women who see their counterparts excelling, it also goes beyond the walls of prison to inspire the family and friends of incarcerated people to strive to achieve things greater than their current circumstances. There are many stories told in the prison of how someone’s child or grandchild was inspired to achieve educationally because they see the person they care about making strides through the lens and words of the San Quentin News.”
Ike Dodson, the public information officer for the state corrections department, said rehabilitation for inmates is a main priority. Currently, the corrections department has more than 43,000 students enrolled in academic coursework, he said.
Rehabilitation is the key to any inmate activity group, said Kevin Nugent, the Kern Valley community resources manager. Inmates must be on their best behavior to join these groups. After 52 hours in a program the inmates are given a credit, which takes 10 days off of their sentence, he said.
“If you dangle that carrot in front of them they stay out of trouble,” Nugent said. “They see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The newspaper serves as more than just a tool to get information out to Facility C. It's also used as a way to reach out to new inmates who are at the highest risk of joining a gang, Menard said. They have a hand in most rehabilitation services so they will try to redirect inmates to other outlets.
For incoming inmates to Facility C, The Pioneer puts together orientation packets that detail the resources for rehabilitation.
So when they see their community start to falter, it can feel that much more devastating for the group.
“It hits hard when violence goes up in the yard,” Stone said.
“I’ve stood with all of these guys at the end of the day and it feels like we’re shaking our fists at the darkness,” Menard said.
“I believe people do things but they don’t realize they can do harm,” Harris said. “I feel like if people know they’re doing wrong we can change the yard and community. That’s my dog in this fight.”
The writers in search of meaning in this prison know that they are here for a reason. There's not a day that goes by where a single one of them doesn't think about a life that they have taken.
“It’s guilt, man,” Sanderson said. “I’m going to be able to go home with my family and he’s not.”
Menard and Stone have life sentences without parole, Harris is serving 50 years to life, while Sanderson is set for parole in 2026. For most of the reporters, the prison will be the only world they know.
“None of these guys pin their hopes on getting out because they know they haven’t earned it,” Menard said. “We’ve earned this. This is where my battle lies."
“When you see some of the people in here — it makes me feel good to know they’re serving life,” Stone said. “I shouldn’t be out in the world. When you start trying to be a better person the bad things you’ve done hurt worse.”
Facility C is far from heaven; it’s the end of the line for many at Kern Valley, Menard said. This section of the prison is maximum security, holding inmates most at risk of being murdered for gang activity. Nobody is meant to stay in Facility C forever. The entire staff of The Pioneer anticipates moving on to lower security. The future is uncertain for the band of misfits who uphold rehabilitation above all else and celebrate their peers.
The sole computer in the Facility C chapel is where The Pioneer is born. While other inmates enter the chapel to find redemption, staff members of The Pioneer squeeze into the cramped computer room to continue their search for what is important, beautiful and real.
Menard, The Pioneer's current leader, does not believe in God but he believes in the pursuit of one. While it’s still here, The Pioneer will continue that search.
“I’m not religious, but if there is a God it’s in the conversations with people,” Menard said. “I’m not a stranger to the dark. This is my battle. If I can have a purpose in here, then that keeps me from that darkness. I focus on people — that’s my job.”