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In a corner office peppered with awards, three jailhouse journalists designed the next edition of their newspaper as Nat King Cole serenaded them on the radio.

Deadline was approaching at the Prison Mirror.

The monthly publication run by and for inmates at the Stillwater correctional facility aims to shed "a ray of light" upon those behind bars, said senior editor Lennell Martin. "I think we have influence and a responsibility to make the world a better place."

Since 1887, the paper has acted as a vehicle for criminal justice reform, an outlet for prisoners to air grievances and rally against injustices — both real and perceived. Over the last 132 years, contributors have covered labor strikes, deadly prison riots and technological advancement.

Now, the longest continuously running prison newspaper in the United States is thriving among a dying breed of penal periodicals.

That may have something to do with its fabled beginnings.

Founding members included an infamous array of outlaws, including the Younger brothers of the Jesse James Gang, captured after a failed bank robbery attempt in Northfield. The three gangsters helped bankroll the Mirror, whose original motto was "God Helps Those Who Help Themselves." Editors later changed the catch phrase to its current form: "It's Never Too Late To Mend."

Peer institutions, also eager to illuminate readers about prison life, started their own inmate-run newsletters. But the prison press nose-dived after peaking in the mid-1970s, dwindling from several hundred publications to just a few dozen today.

Ballooning incarceration rates brought on by 1990s-era tough-on-crime policies tightened state corrections budgets and hardened public perception toward inmates. Many outlets were shuttered.

"They did away with any pretense of reform or rehabilitation," said Paul Wright, who founded Prison Legal News during a 17-year stint at Washington State Reformatory. "Prisons are pretty thoroughly dehumanized."

In Minnesota, the Mirror has managed to survive, in part because the paper is not taxpayer-funded. Subscriptions and profits from the inmate phone system finance the endeavor.

Prison administrators say they value and respect the work editors produce, even when it's critical of the Minnesota Department of Corrections and its policies.

"They really carry a tremendous amount of weight — whether they realize it or not," said Victor Wanchena, Stillwater's associate warden. "That publication helps set the tone and mood of the facility."

Pushing for answers

Writing about prison, from prison requires a delicate balancing act.

Editors work hard to elevate the paper beyond a simple gripe sheet, without kowtowing to administrators looking over their shoulders. In recent issues, the Mirror has tackled sensitive topics such as suicide and mental health.

Last year, amid continued fallout from the Flint, Mich., water crisis, associate editor Jeff Young sought to explore whether the 105-year-old prison could have similar contaminants in its drinking water. So he pulled previous test reports from the facility and requested an interview with the prison's water plant.

This month, he's working on a follow-up to determine why black sediment stained a washcloth left under cold running water.

" 'What is it? What's causing it? Are there any health implications from that?' " said Young, rattling off questions he wants answered.

Avid readers also credit the paper for dispelling myths.

Rumors that the kitchen workers were hoarding steak and lobster for corrections staff sent editors on a behind-the-scenes tour to learn how food is ordered and the menu is set. "They wrote a very fair article," Wanchena said, "that helped clear the air."

The Mirror uses its pages to introduce new administrators, while dedicating space to showcase inmate artwork, essays and poetry.

All three inmate-editors are serving life sentences for murder. Working full time for about $1.50 an hour, they are responsible for the photography, design and most of the written copy in the 16-page paper. The men cover meetings, events and sports on nights and weekends — just like journalists on the outside.

But they must report without 21st-century tools. Prisoners are denied access to the internet or outside phone lines, so information is largely gathered in the library using encyclopedias. That process can be slow and tedious.

"It causes us to be more opinionated because we don't have the resources to get all the facts we need," said sports editor Ron Greer, who also writes a monthly finance column.

Interviews are conducted in person or via U.S. mail, meaning editors sometimes wait months for a response — assuming they get one at all.

One saving grace: Each staffer is provided with a tape recorder and use of the building's sole digital camera.

In many ways, the job is lucrative for its special privileges. Editors get to witness conversations their peers often don't, like the state's first legislative hearing behind bars, held in Stillwater's gymnasium last February. Martin was the only inmate in the entire facility to hear lawmakers discuss safety concerns following the deadliest year in the agency's history.

Before going to press each month, the newspaper endures five layers of administrative review. Education staff check for spelling and grammatical errors, while the office of investigations examines all photos and illustrations for gang symbols. Then associate wardens have the final glance to prevent any libelous or obscene language.

Censorship is relatively rare. Editors can name only a few examples of stories being blocked from publication.

Administrators recently swatted down the idea for a tribute to corrections officer Joseph Gomm, killed by a prisoner last July. The Mirror had unearthed a photo of Gomm rescuing a baby hawk from behind a generator. They thought it would be a sweet moment to remember him by.

"But it was decided that now wasn't the time," said Martin, the senior editor. "The emotions were too raw."

Wanchena said he appreciated the staff's sentiment, but advised it to let things lie out of respect for Gomm's family.

Once approved, the Mirror is printed off-site by prisoners in Moose Lake then delivered to Stillwater.

The prison's staff and 1,550 inmates get free copies, while approximately 260 subscribers throughout the United States and Canada pay $24 a year to have editions mailed to their door.

Educators say the publication is critical to keeping men connected to the outside world.

"Guys rush to them when they get 'em,' " Young said, smiling with pride. "The first thing they look for is their own picture."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648