Almost two decades ago, fledgling reporter James McGrath Morris received the first $1,000 grant ever given by the young National Press Foundation for his research project on jail-house journalismmagazines and newspapers published by prison inmates. But the project lay idle as Morris went into book publishing, travel writing, and, currently, teaching government at West Springfield High School in northern Virginia.
Finally, McFarland & Co. is publishing Morris’ bookJailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars. But by the time he finished his volume, it had turned into an obituary.
Morris first learned about jail-house journalism in 1979 as a correspondent for the Missouri Radio Network in Jefferson City. He did a piece on the Jefftown Journal, which was published at the state prison nearby, and became friends with its editor, gaining access to a tightif far-flungfraternity.
Jail-house publications began as early as 1800, when debtor inmates used the medium to protest their imprisonment. The phenomenon peaked in the liberal 1930s, Morris says. “A lot of these were quite slick operations,” he notes. But the movement, he says, was on the wane by the 1960s. And the late 1980s and 1990swhen the public has favored locking up prisoners and throwing away the keyhave proven especially unkind. About the only publication that continues to thrive is the Angolite, which is published at the hellish state prison in Angola, La.
In addition to continuing his new teaching career, Morris is writing another book, called Travelers to the Undiscovered Country: Chronicling Poverty in America. It spotlights social-reform photographers and journalists, from Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine to Michael Harrington and Jonathan Kozol. Morris’ zest for lost causes, apparently, remains undiminished.Louis Jacobson