At the age of 46, Eddie Arredondo, a prisoner at San Quentin State Prison, thought second chances were for the young.
“I’ve been incarcerated since I was 16—juvenile hall, county jail, prison,” said Arredondo.
Yet the team at Wall City Magazine—the Spanish-language quarterly publication of San Quentin News—“[saw] something I didn’t see in myself,” Arredondo remembered. “They always used to tell me I had potential, even at my age.”
One such mentor was Juan Espinosa, who enrolled in San Quentin’s Spanish Journalism Guild as a prisoner and helped spearhead Wall City in 2018. “My journalism experience was basically zero,” said Espinosa. But, “with the help of the other people there, I began writing.”
Before long, Espinosa was reporting, layout designing, and even recruiting for Wall City. “I tried to bring people to the paper, so they could see how important we were as Spanish speakers,” said Espinosa. He hoped to “help those who had no idea, like me … how a paper worked or what people did there.”
That’s how Espinosa met Arredondo, the two sparking an immediate rapport.
“[Espinosa] liked the fact that I was always looking for opportunities to be of service. So, he hired me on the spot,” said Arredondo. “When I actually walked into the newsroom, it was like ‘this is a real newspaper … [it was] the closest I’ve ever been to freedom, and having a real opportunity to access so many [career] people, and a real job.”
Arredondo worked alongside Espinosa and Lourdes Cárdenas, who taught San Quentin’s Spanish Journalism Guild class. Cárdenas was a reporter for 25 years before becoming a professor of bilingual journalism at SF State, where Berkeley professor William Drummond connected her with Wall City in 2018.
Cárdenas arrived at San Quentin with the intention of teaching journalistic “writing, reporting, interviewing [etc.].” However, Cárdenas quickly realized that “teaching in the prison was totally different than teaching at the college level.”
Cardenas remembered how in one of her first classes, “I was explaining … how your lead should be short, and [have] short paragraphs. One of the students stopped me and said, ‘Excuse me professor, can you say what is a paragraph?’”
“I had to adapt,” Cárdenas said. Many students had just an elementary or middle school education, so she taught Spanish grammar and writing in addition to the differences in news and features reporting.
“Being able to write and read really makes them feel great,” said Cárdenas. “They [begin to] think that they can tell their stories, they can contribute, they can tell the world things that they don’t know about them.”
Espinosa agreed: “The program opened journalism to Spanish speakers…people realized that they had so many more capabilities than they thought they did.”
As a student, Arredondo was moved by how volunteers and advisors were “coming in, showing empathy, and caring for us. You feel like a human being. You don’t feel like an animal, you know?”
This visibility was especially important for incarcerated Spanish speakers. “The Spanish [speaking] community is underrepresented, and it’s a big chunk of the people that are in prison right now. When can they be heard? They have voices,” said Arredondo.
That’s why “The goal [of Wall City] was to try and give a voice to nuestra gente, more than anything,” Espinosa explained.
“[The] way to keep your culture alive is through language,” Cárdenas continued. “You have to understand the difference in culture [through] the language difference, [through learning] the nuances of the language.”
Wall City also provides a space for prisoners to express the nuances of their experiences. In “Viñetas” from Wall City’s Summer 2021 issue, Pablo Luna says “extraño la comida de mi casa, ya que mi mamá hacía mole y carne con chile” (I miss home-cooking, my mother’s mole and carne con chile). In “Aprender a procesar el dolor” by Espinosa, Gilberto López laments his mother’s death and remarks, “Es muy difícil en prisión encontrar alguien en quien confiar y que puedas expresar el dolor” (It’s really difficult to find someone in prison that you can confide in and express your pain to).
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to open up in prison, [they think] it’s not good to be vulnerable,” Arredondo explained.
“A lot of things in prison are done behind fear,” Espinosa added. But “if you act like a human, just a normal human being, [you learn] ‘yeah, I don’t need to come in here and act like I’m invisible.’” By publishing prisoners’ personal experiences, Wall City creates a space for honesty and authentic connection.
“San Quentin gives us that opportunity to express ourselves and maybe give voice to somebody else that feels related to the same stories,” Espinosa said.
Arredondo also hoped to bring prisoners’ stories to everyone “who has an interest in seeing what it is that we go through.” For those who haven’t personally experienced the prison system, “it’s important to listen to their [prisoners’] stories,” Cárdenas said. “It’s important to have a different perspective. I think that helps society as a whole.”
Wall City received support from readers, advisors and prison administration, yet publishing a paper from behind bars still proved difficult. “We [had to] find ways to find stories, to make phone calls, to use our little personal free time to keep the paper and the magazine going,” Arredondo explained. The prisoners were paid 13 cents per hour as compensation for their work.
Production became even more difficult in spring 2020, when COVID-19 hit and government officials transferred hundreds of prisoners from California Institute for Men in Chino to San Quentin. The move, intended to slow the spread of the virus, resulted in thousands of COVID-19 infections and 28 deaths at San Quentin. The prison locked down, its newsroom closed, and classes were suspended. “There is no way to do [online classes] in a prison,” Lourdes said.
While the Journalism Guild paused, the paper continued. The team “didn’t let the pandemic stop us from furthering our goal, which is to inform our people,” Espinosa said.
“Juan kind of instilled that in me … [that] we’re the only ones doing it, [so] we have to keep that alive,” Arredondo added. “Just being a part of something that was bigger than me, just knowing that, we’re making a difference, we’re helping others” helped him push forward.
While COVID-19 raged on, Espinosa faced yet another setback. After serving in prison for 28 years, Espinosa was released on Dec. 3 and deported to Mexico the same day.
Even from Mexico, Espinosa maintains contact with his colleagues, “and more than anything I try to ensure that the work we began continues, independently of who continues it. It’s important that we don’t let it die.”
Arredondo, who was paroled two months ago, says he got a laptop and is taking computer classes “so that I can help on the news where I can.”
“Prison was about violence and just keeping people locked up as punishment,” Arredondo continued, “but if you make it about changing people, helping people, it’s going to make a big positive impact. It’s making an impact now [for] people like me that never had hope. I found that, after 30 years, I’m free. I’m going to make a difference.”
Cárdenas reflected, “You have a lot of people that really give you hope that people can change and learn from their mistakes.” While Cárdenas hoped that the classes will prepare prisoners for successful reintegration, she noted that “even if they don’t get out, the time that they have spent there [at Wall City will be] more productive and more rewarding.”
Since returning to Mexico, Espinosa has seen how his experience at Wall City has helped him overcome his prejudice against others and judgement of himself. “When you start relating with other people, they start boosting your self esteem. [You learn] you’re not [just] the killer, or the rapist. You made a mistake. There is always time to redeem. How can I redeem that? By helping others, or at least by changing my behavior.”
If Espinosa could send a message to his former colleagues “I would tell them to continue with the enthusiasm, the desire, the dedication to bring our message to everyone who needs it. And I’d tell them to consider themselves, in this moment, to consider themselves as the most important people to those who depend on them most.”
Espinosa suffered an accident in January that prevented him from working, yet he remains hopeful. When asked about his plans for the future, he responded: “Live the best I can … I’m enjoying life, regardless of what comes.”