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Take Note: Shaheen Pasha On Teaching Journalism In Prisons

Shaheen Pasha is launching a prison journalism program in central Pennsylvania.
Min Xian

Penn State assistant teaching professor Shaheen Pasha is an advocate for more journalism courses to be taught in prison.

She talked with WPSU about a reporting class she taught to both prisoners and journalism students in Massachusetts, the benefits of learning about our mass incarceration system from the people who are living it and her plan to create a program here in central Pennsylvania.
Min Xian: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Min Xian.

Shaheen Pasha is an assistant teaching professor at Penn State's College of Communications and advocates for more journalism courses to be taught in prison. Previously, she was an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she launched a social justice journalism course focused on mass incarceration at the Hampshire County Jail bringing together prisoners and UMass journalism students. Pasha was a 2018 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard. She's also a veteran journalist who has covered legal issues, finance and the Supreme Court for outlets including Reuters, CNNMoney and the Wall Street Journal.

Shaheen Pasha. Welcome to take note.

Shaheen Pasha: Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: You started teaching journalism behind bars four years ago, first as a volunteer instructor and, later in the fall of 2017, you and your colleague at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, created an advanced writing and reporting class offered at the local jail. Describe to us the settings of those teaching experiences and what were the objectives each time?

Shaheen Pasha: Well, I’ve been fascinated with the legal system for a long time, having covered it. And I saw the difference between how some people behind bars are treated as opposed to others. When I joined the faculty at UMass, I had the opportunity to be able to, you know, volunteer at the local jail, I went and approached them, asked them if they'd be interested and willing to let me do a journalism course. And they were very nervous because journalism is something that scares a lot of people, you know, and especially in a facility like that. So we started off as a media writing course, and it was just really successful. It was a men’s jail, and they just loved it. I mean, they loved being able to understand what was happening in the world, to be able to tell their own stories, be able to understand how to make sense of the news. And from there, I just kept volunteering and my partner, Razvan Sibii, who's a professor with me at UMass. He started volunteering with me. And together, we built an actually four credit course where not only did our UMass students get credit for this advanced journalism course, but the 10 guys inside the Hampshire County Jail did as well. And it's a model that I'm very proud of, and something that I would really hope to emulate one day.

Min Xian: And the course in 2017 was very different than your volunteered teaching in the sense that there were both prisoners, or as you called them, incarcerated students, and UMass journalism students together in the class. “Immersive” was the way you put it. Why did you design it that way?

Shaheen Pasha: Because I think that both sets of students could learn from each other. And I felt like a lot of people have lots of opinions about what it means to be incarcerated, or what the prison system looks like, what we should do with people that do, you know, quote, unquote, bad things, and including some of my students at UMass. By designing a course in which we, you know, an inside out course where we brought UMass students inside the jail, I felt like they could actually see firsthand what it was that they thought they knew about mass incarceration, which turns out, they all admitted they didn't know anything. But it also gave the chance for the guys inside to really be college students.

I absolutely saw no difference between my Hampshire County Jail students and my UMass Amherst students. They work together. They both - both sets of students were cooperating on stories together, they were reporting stories together, coming up with ideas. And it was just a fantastic mix, where I think both sides came away with a lot of understanding about both journalism and about what happens behind bars.

Min Xian: Yeah. And so tell us more about the projects students did in the immersive journalism course. How was it different compared to, I guess, traditional journalism courses?

Shaheen Pasha: One of the major differences is that our guys inside don't have access to the internet. They can't just pick up the phone and call a source. So what we wind up doing is having them work in groups. And the guys came up with the story ideas, they were the experts. They understood what the issues were behind bars and what things that they were interested in were, you know, to talk about. And they did the interviews behind bars with the people that, you know, whether they were administrators at the jail or whether they were other incarcerated men, they were able to get those voices across. Our students at UMass were able to do the expert interviews, they were the ones able to go on the internet and see if those statistics matched up, you know, what they needed to explain, they were the ones able to go speak to professors or, you know, legal experts or doctors or whatever the story needed. So it was a perfect combination of the two, to be able to write a full story that really also had the voices of the people inside.

Min Xian: I think you mentioned that for you as a teacher, you don't see a difference in teaching prisoners and university students, but do you see how their perspective may have changed before going into the class and coming out of the class?

Shaheen Pasha: Absolutely. I think for my UMass students, they - once again - they had a lot of opinions about, you know, the mass incarceration system. I think for them it was an eye opener to see that some of the things that they thought on behalf of the guys inside was not actually what the guys felt themselves. I mean, they were really surprised that a lot of the things that they said the reforms that should be made the guys were like, well, you know, we've we need to look at the situation and it was a very different scene. For the guys inside, they felt like they were just part of a regular college course. One of my students had said to me that he felt a lot of times when people come into the prisons and come into the jails that they're - what he called, he called it jail porn. He said they come in, they look at us like we're, you know, animals or something to kind of inspect, but they don't interact with us. They don't just ask us about our day, and our students just came in and because we created the system where they were all on equal footing. It was a very cooperative situation. And the guys inside told us that they felt like they were college students, and that to me was a huge win.

Min Xian: And what was your biggest takeaway in creating and teaching that course. Were there things that surprised you? Or you didn't anticipate when creating it?

Shaheen Pasha: One is always the bureaucracy that comes in, I mean, things that should be normal and easy to be able to do. But you know, had many, many layers, many sets of consent forms things that I’m thinking, why can't we just interview? Why can't the incarcerated students just interview his roommate? No, we can't, because they need to have consent forms. And it was very complicated. And I never thought about that.

But I think what also, I came away with was just the understanding of, there are so many stories that we do not know. Ways of living, creative things that these guys do to hold on to their humanity to be a part of society, even when society has forgotten about them. And really seeing that up front changed my perspective, I think it changed my partner Raz’s perspective, and it definitely changed the student's perspective.

Min Xian: And in your work, you make the case for more journalism courses to be taught in prisons and jails and I understand that there are a range of reasons why that could be beneficial. Can you start us off with what education in prison journalism can do for those who are incarcerated?

Shaheen Pasha: Well, prison education itself as an outlet is amazing for rehabilitation and to end recidivism. I mean, the studies are clear that you're going to - if you get prison classes, education classes, you're less likely to go back inside, because it gives you skills and it gives you confidence. But prison journalism itself, I think, is so important because, A, It teaches the men and women inside, that they matter that their stories are important. People listen to them, they care about them. And I think that it also provides them an outlet to be able to facilitate change. We talk about prison reform. But how many of that movement is actually coming from the people inside? You're seeing some, but the ones that are still incarcerated on a day to day basis, we don't hear from them, and yet we're making decisions about how they live and how they should be punished. So I think that's important to be able to tell your own stories. From purely a skills based perspective, journalism is something that you can use in any facet. It teaches you how to write well, it teaches you social skills, because it makes you actually interact with others. And especially in a place that’s very isolating, that's important. It teaches you how to make sense of the world and how to separate fact from fiction, because gossip is a huge problem. And they were seeing - they saw very early on that [they] know everything has to be verified, everything has to be shown. And I think those are skills that a person can come outside and apply to many different careers, like just in communication in general.

Min Xian: In journalism, we love to tout ourselves as giving voice to the voiceless. So how important is it that these kind of writing and reporting skills that you're teaching to the inmates is a way for them to share their voice?

Shaheen Pasha: It really just creates a window into the life of someone else. I mean, that I think is the finest journalism. That's what it does. It doesn't just speak to what everybody knows. It uncovers and unveils the secret lives of people we know or that we don't know and makes us think about ourselves and how we view you know, humanity. And I think that for our students inside, it, once again, just shows them that they're people that actually are interested, every one of my guys, when I would sit there and say, you know, let's tell the story, they would go, “Why? No one cares.” And that broke my heart because no, people do care, they just don't know. And we have to explain to them what it's like to be a parent behind bars, we have to explain to them what it feels like to try to, you know, take medication or to be you know, mentally ill. And these are stories that are very relevant in everyday society, and 95% of prisoners are released. You're sending people back into the world expecting them to be quote, unquote, normal, but you've never taken the time to understand the trauma that they've been through. That's a really huge part of journalism I think we need to explore.

Min Xian: In this kind of immersive learning we're talking about, what do journalism students stand to gain?

Shaheen Pasha: I think it's it makes journalists actually learn how to be creative. I think one of the things that we have is these challenges within the prison system and trying to be investigative and explore and get sources and get interviews and, you know, tackle people that don't want to talk to. These are skills that any novice journalists, anyone new coming out is going to face. I think that brings students in and giving them the opportunity to do that from a very early level, it actually sets them up really nicely to be able to overcome challenges as they get out into the workforce.

I think it also opens their eyes to the different types of stories that are out there. Too often, we only write about or know about our own experience. And by forcing them in a situation which they would never be in, hopefully, ever and making them realize, wow, there's this whole universe here of stories. I think it'll just expand the coverage and it'll make for better journalism

Min Xian: Journalism as an industry has been criticized for becoming increasingly out of touch with the divides in the nation. And you wrote about how teaching journalism in prisons would have broader benefits, like you mentioned, including better journalism. How do you see that could happen?

Shaheen Pasha: I think for one, it makes people challenge their own biases. I think we all come in and especially something like incarceration creates a lot of biases. And I think that could slide over to regular life, we don't realize just how we view the world. So I think that by making you know, prison journalism come out, we're going to be faced with - confronting our biases. That's for students that are you know, already outside. For the guys inside, I think it - what it does is, it makes them realize the importance of untold stories, it makes them realize that the smallest idea that they have, is actually huge and you can build a story around it. And it really makes them realize that there is a whole world out there that they're connected to and that when they get out they can find a common ground. And I think somewhere along the way, a lot of my guys have lost that. And I want them to be able to feel that connection again.

Min Xian: And another brother benefit, maybe a better understanding of our mass incarceration system. Many journalists have experienced the difficulty of reporting on what goes on inside jails and prisons. People who live behind bars sometimes are better positioned to tell those stories. Is that true to your experience?

Shaheen Pasha: Absolutely, I mean, there's no better experts in the prison system than the person that's actually lived it from the inside. And you know, that can also mean, you know, correctional officers that have a whole other understanding that I wouldn't understand outside, but the guys are there 24/7. I also think prison in many ways is a microcosm for the outside world, you'd have cliques, you have hierarchies of power, you have, you know, unfair things happening. And that's very much some of the things that we as journalists on the outside look to expose and look to understand. So I think that that really having a very small place where all of these things happen, it can create fascinating ideas and stories.

Min Xian: What are some stories that really leave an impression on you because they were reported from within?

Shaheen Pasha: I do both reported work like having them actually do like reported kind of explanatory stories. I also do memoir writing with them and I think there's place for both.

Some of the stories that really stuck with me was the stories that my students wrote and researched about mental illness behind bars and just seeing how difficult it is to get proper medication, for instance. You know, you come in with one medication, you get arrested, it takes a few days for the system to be able to confirm that medication with a doctor. So in the meantime, you're either not medicated - yeah, you're definitely not medicated, but then when they do start getting medication, it may not be the same thing as what they were getting, which causes all sorts of issues. I'd never thought about it. And it blew my mind that that was what people were experiencing.

I think a story that hit me really hard was a story - a memoir piece the one of my guys wrote that I actually helped get published, which was about how he tried to parent his autistic son from behind bars. And I think that's a story that will connect with readers on all levels, because we all know the challenges of parenting. But then you add that layer of autism and now you add that layer of incarceration. It's something that when I read it the first time, I actually got very emotional, and he was like, “What is the - Why do you care?” And I was like, I care. I think a lot of people will and a lot of people did.

Min Xian: It sounds like there's that realization process for inmates and prisoners to understand that their storytelling has so much value. It's just that, I guess, never before has there been a venue for them to let those emotions and stories out, for the public to see.

Shaheen Pasha: Absolutely and they're told in many ways to stop talking, you know, in many ways, they're shut down. And this gives them an opportunity to have impact. You know? You know that you made someone cry on the outside. For that second you impacted their life, they came away with an understanding that they didn't have before. And I think that realization is huge for them as well.

Min Xian: If you're just joining us, we're talking with Shaheen Pasha. She's an assistant teaching professor at Penn State's College of Communications and advocates for more journalism courses to be taught in prison. Previously, she was an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she launched a social justice journalism course focused on mass incarceration at the Hampshire County Jail, bringing together prisoners and UMass journalism students.

One of your goals is to create a repeatable model for university journalism programs to partner with prisons in creating journalism curriculum for inmates. What are the limits and challenges along the way?

Shaheen Pasha: Bureaucracy is always a challenge in any field, but definitely behind bars. I think the other thing is just getting people within the Department of Corrections and facilities to trust you. They hear journalism, they think you want to burn it down. And that's not what my courses are about. I'm an educator, I'm a journalist as well. But in the classroom, I'm an educator, my job is to just give skills, and these are skills that can be taken out. So part of that is getting the people in charge to understand what I'm trying to do and to understand that, you know, it is safe to bring students in, you know, from the outside, into work with the guys inside to understand what they're doing.

I think the other one is just how do you navigate the restrictions on reporting? I mean, what are some things that are taboo that you absolutely can't touch? As a journalist you want to say no, I should be able to; as an educator, you need to understand what you're doing and what the end goal is. My end goal is to educate. So if there's - sometimes [there] are restrictions at that moment, I have to be a teacher and I have to work within those restrictions. So those are some of the problems that kind of come with it.

The other I think, is just having students come in with an open mind and not already come in assuming that they know everything, and that they know what the - what the men and women inside are feeling or should be feeling. And that's a whole other issue that you know, works on because people on the outside have lots of opinions, and it's about really coming in in a clean slate.

Min Xian: In your experience, you know, what works, what helps in that process of realizing and shedding away your own bias?

Shaheen Pasha: Listening. Listening to the men and women inside. That was I think the most powerful thing. One of the tools we use inside our class was we actually played excerpts from Ear Hustle, which is a podcast that's out of San Quentin news and the guys never heard it inside. Most of them were incarcerated before it even went live. And so when they heard it, and my students from UMass were sitting there watching them, they just were nodding along going, “Yeah, that happened to me,” or they would laugh at things they would understand. And that moment was this connection for my outside students like, wow, I don't understand any of this, right. But this is just life to them. And then they started listening even more intently to what the guys were saying they didn't push back or try to say, “Well, why do you think that is? Do you think you can change your mind?” Because it wasn't about changing anyone's mind. It was about understanding. So I think it's really it's about listening. And that's something frankly, all journalists should be doing anyway.

Min Xian: And I think there's a very tight balance here, because journalism requires a lot of pushing when it comes to confronting authority. But that's not always possible in the context of prison journalism. How do you handle that when you communicate with inmates, when you're teaching them about the craft, but have to be really practical about the situation?

Shaheen Pasha: I make them aware of their rights. I mean, they do have rights inside prison. I mean, they do have rights - it’s not always actually seen, right, but they do have them. But I work really closely with the administrators. My job is to make something that's going to build and to have more people take these classes and eventually to be able to maybe, you know, newspapers and newsletters inside will be able to send their stories out. So I work very closely with the administration, I don't believe in shutting them out. I listen to their concerns. I try to address their concerns. I try to address the concerns of the guys I work with. It's a very tight balancing act. And sometimes I win, and sometimes I don't, but my goal is, once again, it's what's the end goal, and what is the best for this what they want to do for them. And so sometimes it means making compromises and I and I do that.

Min Xian: What are some concerns that you have seen?

Shaheen Pasha: Some of the concerns were, “Is this story going to make us look bad?” You know, I know they're working on this story, but is that something that people are going to take out of context? And you know, there is always context, you know? So it's about navigating that, explaining what the story is, negotiating what my parameters are. Some cases there might be like, absolutely not, you cannot write about this. And as every part of me that's a journalist is angry. But I'm thinking, all right, you know what, I don't want to lose the larger thing. And so I'm going to work on a story or find a variation of the story that I can work on, you know, or find other ways to tell it that maybe aren't, as, you know, frightening for the administration. And, and there are ways there's so many angles, you can tell the story to get the same message across.

Min Xian: There are a lot of stakeholders in the process like that. Universities, media organizations, and correctional administrations. They all have different priorities. So how realistic is it to make this kind of prison journalism programs more common in the country or even internationally?

Shaheen Pasha: It's becoming more realistic, I think. There's been the success of a lot of the work that San Quentin does. I actually am collaborating with San Quentin on our project at Penn State, the prison journalism project.

Min Xian: For those who don't know about San Quentin news, tell us a little bit about what it does.

Shaheen Pasha: San Quentin news is, is the first and only completely inmate-run newspaper in the country. And it's in, it's in San Quentin, California. And it's put out podcasts, won awards, it's, it's just brilliant. It's very well done. And they hold the line very well on, you know, what they want - reporting hard news, and getting information out, but also, you know, staying within the parameters that you know, for safety and security that you know, are necessary. And so we've been working with them. They had the Ear Hustle podcasts, they put out a magazine, Wall magazine, they have San Quentin news as well. So these are all things that you know, we look at, while working with the guys inside there to try to bring this to the rest of the country more and I think it is - I absolutely think it is more feasible now than it may have been a few years ago. There's a lot of discussion about prison reform, now. There's a lot of high quality you know, high known celebrities that are getting involved in this. Lots of discussions from you know, like the administration about how, you know, second chances, things like that. So stuff like that momentum, I think bode well for, you know, getting more of these programs in place because people are seeing the value of it.

Min Xian: Do you feel like those are some of the elements of what it takes to make prison journalism more successful and more common?

Shaheen Pasha: Absolutely. You need to have people pay attention. You need to have people that are already excited about projects, like Ear Hustle and San Quentin news and other types of publications. If there's excitement, and it builds and people are writing stories about them externally, then absolutely, you know, we're going to see more of that interest because people want to - it's part of being a bandwagon. You want to be seen as progressive and it is a progressive thing to do and something that does improve relationship between incarcerated people and the administration of their facilities. So I think we're seeing a lot more focus on that.

Min Xian: There was an opinion piece on the Marshall project, which is a national publication focused criminal justice and mass incarceration, arguing that one way to fix our prison is to let the public inside.

Shaheen Pasha: When I saw that article, I was so excited that it was written because the article argued that we need to bring more people inside, we need to bring people outside that are not incarcerated inside. And I 100% agree with that. And I think the people inside want to be out, they want to be rehabilitated, you know, and so they want to be able to live their lives and have skills and have meaning. Once they actually see that I think that they come away different. You may have lots of opinions, you may be very sort of, you know, punitive in your stance about people behind bars, but when you actually meet them, and you see that most people just want to live their lives, they want to get back to their families and do good, right, for society. It really does change it. And I think journalism is, is good with that. It shows you insight into humanity. So I think it's an important step.

Min Xian: And you join Penn State's College of Communications in 2019, to create a prison journalism program here, too. Can you talk about how you're approaching that? Where are you in the process right now?

Shaheen Pasha: I am so excited about this project.

It's basically - the project I had created with a partner who's the advisor to San Quentin news, Yukari Kane. She and I created the prison journalism project before I joined Penn State. Penn State Bellisario College of Communications actually has made it an umbrella for our projects. We're bringing it in house and we're working with San Quentin. What the goal is we're going to be doing a textbook and teacher’s kit to spread this, you know, around the country, but we're also creating classes like I - at Penn State, I will be creating mass incarceration and media classes at the beginning until I get the go-ahead from facilities. I'm gonna be teaching it purely for students here at Penn State. But on the side continuing to teach inside, I'm going to be teaching a creative nonfiction writing class at the local jail here. And that's my first step to start showing how we can do good with this work. Then from there, I have a class coming in the fall, which will be media and mass incarceration, in which I talk about how mass incarceration is represented in the media and how the media in many ways is to blame for a lot of the spike that we've seen just based on the representations. From there, I'm doing training to do an inside out certification. And that's the end goal. So within the next few years, my end goal is to have a class structure set up, where we bring students from Penn State into the local facilities around here, and they work together.

Min Xian: So you're currently working with Centre County Correctional Facility for the non-fiction writing class that you mentioned. And is the next step going to work with the State Correctional Facilities?

Shaheen Pasha: That's always been the goal. I mean, the state correctional facilities have longer times, you know, you can do more with the students there because, you know, you have shorter terms, they can take the class maybe, right, you have a longer term, there's more room for dedication, dedicated learning, you know, more room for them to take multiple classes to develop a rapport with our students help them develop their skills beyond one semester, 12 weeks. So yes, I mean, that I, I would ideally love to take this across the state, start with workshops, teach other people, other interested parties, whether you're a professor or you're just a volunteer, or you're a journalist, how to bring this into a facility that that's the goal.

Min Xian: And I think this really goes back to the core of the case that you make for prison journalism, because so often, the media reports on things that comes from the state's mouth or whatever official information channel there are, but we need to hear from the people themselves who are living behind bars.

Shaheen Pasha: Absolutely. And I mean, obviously, I have a lot of sympathy and I care a lot about people that are victims of crimes, of course, you know, but when we're talking about the media and our job, our job is to tell the whole story. Our job is - even some the whole story shows somebody in a bad light, you have to tell it. And I think a lot of our representation comes from the prosecution side, it comes from the sentencing, it comes from the jurors, so you don't hear so much from the defense attorneys. You don't hear so much from the actual people that are going into prison, and if you don't have that narrative, you do not have the whole picture. And I think the only way to make a rational decision about prison reform and mass incarceration is to have the whole picture, even if it's not particularly pretty.

Min Xian: And you believe our society needs and will benefit from more prison journalism, have we seen that happening already?

Shaheen Pasha: We are seeing way more coming up. I was just reading an article about a publication that the Department of Corrections in Washington D.C. is launching with its jail. And that's amazing. You know, I think that's amazing. We see prison journalists like John J. Lennon, who was just - who's a guy in Sing Sing, who does amazing work for the New York Times for, you know, the Atlantic and the Marshall project. And that's - those are small scale but it's building, it's growing. We're seeing more facilities launching podcasts, we're seeing more facilities, you know, doing newsletters, you know, allowing their inmates to send work out, which is a problem sometimes they won't even let them send news articles out or pieces out. So it's slow and steady, but it's definitely more than it was a few years ago for sure.

Min Xian: Shaheen Pasha, thank you for joining us on Take Note.

Shaheen Pasha: Thank you so much for having me.

Min Xian: Shaheen Pasha is an assistant teaching professor at Penn State's College of Communications and advocates for more journalism courses to be taught in prison. Previously, she was an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she launched a social justice journalism course focused on mass incarceration at the Hampshire County Jail, bringing together prisoners and UMass journalism students. Pasha was a 2018 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

You can listen to more Take Note interviews on I’m Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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