The James boys, Jesse and Frank, and the Younger brothers, Coleman, James and Robert, were known for making news, not writing it—for holdups, not pasteups, for sending people, not stories, to the morgue.
But in 1876, when the Younger boys pulled life sentences for bank robbery, brother Cole launched a second career. Together with Lew P. Schoon-maker, a fellow inmate in the Minnesota Territorial Prison in Stillwater, Younger founded the Prison Mirror. This year the Mirror, the oldest continuously published prison newspaper in the country, celebrates its centennial.
“The paper was started by lifers, and after 100 years it’s still being run by lifers,” says current editor Robert Taliaferro with pride. In the fourth year of a life term for a murder he committed while on drugs, Taliaferro, 32, works with a staff of four to continue the mission laid out in the Mirror’s first issue on Aug. 10, 1887. “If the ‘Mirror’ project is to succeed, it must have a little life in it,” declared the unsigned editorial. “Instead of praising the warden, guards and keepers, it must show them in their hideous deformity.”
But the Mirror has always been more than just a “bitch sheet,” says Taliaferro. Early issues offered etiquette tips such as, “It is not considered an act of good breeding for a host to strike a fly that may be sitting on a guest’s bald head,” as well as the occasional travel piece. “There have been nine successful escapes from this place in the past 10 years,” an issue in the 1880s noted, “and only one recapture.”
Stillwater authorities allow a good deal of freedom to the prison press. Leroy Siegel, the assistant warden who monitors the Mirror, only gets out his blue pencil when the paper encourages violence or other disruptive actions. “I figure we have to let them criticize us to be credible,” he says.
Unfortunately, the Mirror’s captive audience isn’t always so tolerant. Taliaferro’s predecessor, a convicted child molester, had to be replaced after he turned the paper’s inquiring camera on some of the amorous exploits in the cell blocks.
Then there was the time an editor wrote a piece about drug use in the prison; readers signaled their displeasure by heaving a chair at his head, and he had to be transferred to another facility for safekeeping. As a consequence, drug stories are no longer considered news that’s fit to print. “I’ve shot a lot of heroin, and I wouldn’t touch the outfits [needles] they use in here,” says associate editor Craig Seifert, 32, a self-described career criminal. “But if I write about how you can get AIDS from dirty outfits, well, it wouldn’t be good for me.”
On the other hand, as Taliaferro noted in a recent editorial, “This AIDS scare has almost stopped rapes.” He condemned a recent Vermont decision to let inmates have condoms and cautioned Stillwater officials against adopting a similar policy. “They get condoms, the rapes will start again,” he warned. (Says Seifert jokingly of his editor-in-chief: “He’s a black Republican redneck.”)
Few of the Mirror’s articles are controversial, though. Like any small-town newspaper, it sticks pretty close to the mundane interests of its readers—some 1,200 at the prison and 2,000 other subscribers around the world who want to stay in touch with loved ones or former cellmates at Stillwater. Recent articles have included “Managing Life’s Stress,” “Alternatives to Execution,” “Smoking and Your Teeth,” “To Testify or not to Testify” and “If You Use the Hotpot, Keep It Clean.” On the arts front, the paper recently featured Stillwater inmate Gilbert Adams, who weaves discarded cigarette packs “into decorative and useful items.” Forty-five empty packs make a wallet, 128 a pair of baby shoes and 232 a belt. Donations—with cellophane, please—can be left at the Mirror office.
“We want to demonstrate we aren’t all psychopathic animals in here,” says associate editor Robert Morgan, 32, who’s in the 12th year of a life sentence for murder. “There are a lot of talents in prison.” Certainly Cole Younger would be proud of the 20 journalism awards that adorn the walls of the Mirror’s quarters on the first floor of the prison. This year, for the second time, the paper took first place in the American Penal Press contest sponsored by Southern Illinois University.
The Mirror “is a real newspaper, and I’m a real editor,” stresses Taliaferro, who won’t be eligible for release for many years. “I’ve turned down stories from the warden.” Which could be the subject of some future editorial: Journalistic integrity and parole.