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Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

Empowerment Avenue Helps Incarcerated Writers Get Their Work Published

San Quentin prison — Empowerment Avenue

San Quentin prison in San Quentin, California, north of San Francisco. (Image: Frank Schulenburg/Wikimedia Commons)

When prisons around the U.S. locked down in 2020 as COVID-19 spread rapidly within them, most journalists lost the access needed to report on the issue. But Rahsaan “New York” Thomas could report from the inside, as a then-incarcerated writer who had just tested positive for the virus.

“Instead of crying about COVID, I was like… ‘I got the scoop of the century. Let me write about it. Let me get my voice out here,’" he told TriplePundit. "And my writing career launched." 

His Business Insider story launched more than his writing career. Thomas’ account of San Quentin prison’s lockdown laid bare the administrative abuse and neglect that caused an outbreak that killed 27 people, infected hundreds, and left many suffering in brutal conditions — including solitary confinement under the guise of medical isolation. 

Thomas describes art as the ultimate icebreaker and a path to economic empowerment. That story earned him four figures at a time when he was making just $36 per month writing for the San Quentin News. That same year, he co-founded Empowerment Avenue. The organization pairs incarcerated writers and artists with volunteer editors, helping participants connect with outside publications and secure fair pay. 

“If you want to change the criminal justice system, you need to come proximal to it,” Thomas said, paraphrasing attorney Bryan Stevenson’s words during a visit to San Quentin several years ago. 

Publications focusing on prison reform and social justice, like The Marshall Project and Justice Arts Coalition, and programs like the PEN Prison Writing Contest, which publishes an annual anthology of work by writers who are incarcerated, help amplify incarcerated folks’ voices. But barriers to creative resources and connections, especially in mainstream media, remain high for creators in prison. They often work alone, with little to no professional resources and without the freedom of communication necessary to produce and find work. Organizations and publications are rarely aware of the support that incarcerated creators need, much less equipped to provide it. 

This is where Empowerment Avenue comes in. The program recruits incarcerated writers and artists for its Writing for Liberation and Visual Arts for Liberation cohorts — made up of about sixty people in total. They work one-on-one with editors and mentors from a volunteer network of editors, journalists and other media professionals. The program also offers funding for materials like paper and stamps, administrative help with writing exhibition proposals and facilitating communication, and practical guides for those involved both inside and outside the system. 

A renaissance at San Quentin

The program was piloted under the nonprofit Prison Renaissance, which Thomas and fellow creatives Emile DeWeaver and Juan Meza co-founded while at San Quentin. They were inspired by a growing number of artists and writers there who were getting their work published. “The fact that we were starting to get [our work] in outside magazines and outside publications made me feel like there was a renaissance happening at San Quentin,” Thomas said.

DeWeaver was publishing the most by far and worked with an editor throughout the writing and publishing process, Thomas said. “What if everybody had somebody like that on the outside?” He wondered. 

He met freelance journalist Emily Nonko, Empowerment Avenue’s co-founder and writing director, when she attended an annual breast cancer walk at San Quentin. The two bonded over shared interests in prison reform and media equity. Not long after, they asked an online freelance writing group, “Who wants to help incarcerated writers get their voices out?” Over 100 people volunteered, and Empowerment Avenue was born. 

How it works

The organization hinges on a database of volunteers who are matched with incarcerated writers and artists recruited for the program through their existing work, often in publications like the Marshall Project and the Prison Journalism Project. Empowerment Avenue takes stock of each cohort member’s needs, including how the prison works, how they can receive funds, and what restrictions they need to work around. “[We] let the artists tell us what their rules are,” Thomas said. 

Ryan Moser joined the first group of about 20 established creatives following the pilot cohort. Nonko contacted Moser after reading his essays in the Marshall Project and introduced him to solutions journalism, a style of reporting that focuses on responses to the world’s problems. Over email, the two shared article examples, writing exercises and questions. 

For an early article, Moser wrote about the August 2021 earthquake in Haiti, where many people in the Miami prison he was at were from. He interviewed fellow residents about their families and where they grew up, noting the sense of community his work built and how quickly he fell in love with journalism. “It encompassed a lot of things that I already believed in, like questioning authority, going after bullies, dealing in facts and not fiction,” he told 3p. 

Empowerment Avenue also helps editors and newsrooms support incarcerated artists and writers. The learning curve includes navigating heavily restrictive and slow prison communication systems, providing flexible deadlines and coordinating payment. 

“We always try to put ourselves out of business by teaching people — encouraging outside editors and publications to work directly with artists,” Thomas said. 

The organization’s practical guides address topics like maintaining creative output from inside prison and key points for editors working with incarcerated writers. An abolitionist guidebook written by Empowerment Avenue’s participants, volunteers, and staff and published in Scalawag Magazine, includes essays, step-by-step advice, and case studies about supporting incarcerated folks in the media. The detailed collection is a testament to their dedication and the resilience of artists in prison. 

Empowerment Avenue’s impact

Accessing creative opportunities and building professional relationships can help individuals prepare for release and build the necessary funds. After what he calls his first big story, Thomas published over 40 stories in under three years and returned home having earned $30,000. 

Moser published 27 articles in 12 months after joining Empowerment Avenue and earned $10,000. He is currently a fellow at the Educational Writers’ Association and the local newsroom Resolve Philly. He’s also a freelance reporter and media consultant. 

Empowerment Avenue writers earned over $110,000 from their writing between May 2020 and March 2023. Their articles and essays are published in dozens of literary journals, local newspapers, and major outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. 

Participating visual artists exhibit and sell their work in galleries, online and in-person exhibits, and published work, including collaborations with incarcerated writers. “We lose track of the numbers of how much we help incarcerated people make because we help in relationships that become independent of us,” Thomas said. 

Incarcerated artists’ representation in the media benefits us all. Their work not only offers the insight we need to work toward decarceration but is also a potent expression of the creative impulse and its unstoppable generative force. 

Along with Thomas, other incarcerated writers broke stories and led discussions about public health and the carceral system. Following a PEN fellowship on COVID-19, Juan Haines published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle detailing a lawsuit that over 300 San Quentin residents, including Haines, filed asserting that the state’s actions violated Eighth Amendment protections. Days later, a Northern California judge tentatively ruled that state prison officials acted with deliberate indifference and caused the devastating outbreak at San Quentin. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court denied California prison officials immunity against a wave of related lawsuits. 

Thomas reflected on Stevenson’s statement about proximity and changing the justice system, “What's something that we can talk about? Art is that… [it’s] the ultimate way to build.”

Michelle Erdenesanaa headshot

Michelle is a freelance writer with experience in international nonprofit work, arts and culture writing, and creative copywriting. She is particularly devoted to stories that highlight cultural expansion and our interdependence.

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