Longtime San Quentin newspaper editor relishes freedom after 23 years – NBC Bay Area
Richard “Bonaru” Richardson stood in the front yard of an Oakland home, reflecting on the row of bars that surrounded the property – knowing that for the first time in more than two decades he could walk out of those bars when he wanted it.
Weeks earlier, Richardson was locked in bars and barbed wire at San Quentin Prison, his home for many years, shaking off the remains of an armed robbery he committed over 23 years ago. But although his body was trapped in prison, his words and vision had reached thousands – as a reporter and later editor of the San Quentin News, the newspaper run by inmates at the prison.
“It was gratifying because I knew we were making a change,” said Richardson, his eyes darting around as if to inhale the outside world.
The San Quentin News dated back to the 1930s, had been closed over two decades ago, and then relaunched in 2008 under Director Robert Ayers Jr. In 2010, after bouncing back into the California prison system, Richardson landed in San Quentin and took a job. working on newspaper printing presses. When the presses were finally shut down and the print was exploited to the outside world, Richardson embarked on a job as a journalist. Even in prison where life is divided into daily regimes, the demands of the concert suit him.
“I like tasks, I like deadlines, I like benchmarks,” he said. “To exceed this deadline, it’s gratifying, it’s gratifying.”
The role of the San Quentin News, its editorial staff assisted by journalists and professional educators – ticks a plethora of boxes; he is a spokesperson for the prison and the inmates themselves; it is a training ground for inmates looking to develop new skills – and most significantly for Richardson, there is an advocacy aspect where the document highlights inmate programs and accomplishments. In other words, it aims to meet them.
“We are incarcerated individuals and we are trying to change other incarcerated individuals,” said Richardson. “I hope that because of these people telling these stories, we can prevent other people from making these terrible decisions in their lives.”
Richardson rose through the ranks to become the newspaper’s editor, helping to guide the broader vision of the newspaper, which is shipped to 35 prisons in California.
He remembered the days when paper first reappeared from mothballs to start printing again. Inmates called it a “cookie” telling Richardson to “get his trash out of here” as he went from cell to cell to distribute the latest edition. But as the presses continued to print and writers continued to write, inmates began looking for the next issue.
“Watching this transformation go from ‘we don’t want this diary’ to ‘when are we going to have the San Quentin diary?’,” He recalls, “was a lesson in humility.”
The newspaper has become popular among inmates, but also a tool for inmates to inform the outside public and decision-makers about conditions within the prison.
Before his parole in May, Richardson put his stamp not only on the paper, but also on the inmates he turned into journalists under his tutelage, including Jesse Vasquez who followed Richardson’s path from reporter to editor in head of the newspaper.
“I think for some of us he was a mentor, he became like a brother to me,” Vasquez said. “Taught me everything I knew on paper.”
Vasquez was paroled from San Quentin in 2019, crediting Richardson and the newspaper’s inspiring ethics with helping him aim for a life outside of prison.
“After seeing it, I wanted something better for myself,” Vasquez said, “because I saw something better.”
But the final year of Richardson’s stretch as editor and inmate has been the hardest of his 23 years behind bars – as COVID-19 has made its way into prison, leaving a string of illnesses and dead.
Twenty-eight inmates and a prison guard died from the disease. Richardson was forced to temporarily shut down the newspaper to protect its inmate staff and outside volunteers from the virus, even though he himself contracted it and fell ill. But when he recovered and the newspaper started again, it sparked an unwavering examination of the state prison system’s response to the virus, using reports from both inside and outside of it. the prison.
“Of all the twenty-three years I have been in prison, this was the scariest time of my life,” said Richardson. “Because every five to ten seconds in the north block, someone was yelling at the man.”
And yet, despite the newspaper’s critical articles about the state’s handling of the virus, Richardson said he never received a call from the administration telling him to step down.
“We’ve never had a problem printing a story the administration didn’t agree with,” he said.
As the virus wore off and Richardson’s jail time began to end, he made his own record with the decisions that brought him there as a much younger man. As he spoke of the emotions of being “taken” away, he quickly corrected himself.
“I know I committed the crime, I know I did this to myself,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily taken, I gave my freedom.”
Now fresh out of prison and living in transitional housing in Oakland, Richardson was adjusting to the fact that his time was his. The deadlines were his. The future was his.
It seemed like a fitting metaphor that Richardson had hung a dry-erase whiteboard above the computer in his bedroom, on which he planned to start listing tasks soon. Like Richardson’s life, the painting seemed like a blank slate ready to fill with ideas and dreams.
“So I can now write my own story,” said Richardson, glancing at the empty board, “instead of someone writing my story for me.”