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Penn State Professor Finds Passion Through Non-Profit ‘Prison Journalism Project’

Shaheen Pasha, an assistant teaching professor here at Penn State, is a co-founder and co-executive of an initiative called the Prison Journalism Project. The non-profit organization gives a voice to people behind bars who want to learn and share their experiences from inside their cells.

The inspiration for the project initially struck from a call she received about her childhood best friend Tariq MaQbool, who was sentenced to 150 years in prison for a double homicide. The news completely changed her perspective on the law.

“It was just seeing the other side of the justice system that I had never really thought about,“ Pasha said. 

After he was convicted, she went to visit him. Then, the Prison Journalism Project was really born. 

“We were behind this plexiglass wall, and he said this thing to me which I always quote as the seed of the Prison Journalism Project. He said ‘Everybody inside here has a story, you’ll just never hear any of them,’” Pasha said.

Pasha used this new program and the resources to teach journalism to those who wanted to learn. The PJP (Prison Journalism Project) School provided resources and training to those who wanted to grow their skills as writers. She was never interested in fully publishing their work until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We put out an ad in Prison Legal News, which is a popular publication that goes into a lot of prisons around the country, just saying, ‘Hey, we are this new initiative. We want to publish your stories about COVID just to make sure your experiences are being out there for the historical records.’ We got completely flooded,'” Pasha said.

The first stories were then published on their website in April 2020.

Pasha and her co-founder, Yukari Iwatani Kane, knew they needed to share their project with the world. The stories were not just about COVID-19, though. They were about racism, the Black Lives Matter movement, parenting, and an extensive number of other topics that incarcerated individuals face on a daily basis.

Over the past year and a half, the Prison Journalism Project has published almost 900 articles, poems, and essays, as well as different forms of media. These stories come from more than 350 writers across 33 states, Canada, and the United Kingdom.

Within the next few years, the PJP hopes to become a national network of prison journalists while continuing to allow them to learn and eventually provide opportunities to the contributors once they are done serving time.

Recently, the project held a fundraising campaign that smashed expectations thanks to generosity from readers and community members.

“I am really grateful to Penn State because they have helped seed us,” Pasha said. “They have helped bring us to life.”

Pasha’s passion for the Prison Journalism Project has carried over to her work at Penn State, too. Since fall 2020, she’d led a special topics communications course that examines how media played a role in the rise of mass incarceration and how it continues to highlight the injustices in the United States’ incarceration system. Last month, the class used Zoom to connect students with incarcerated Prison Journalism Project students.

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About the Author

Mara McKeon

Mara is a freshman double majoring in English and Media Studies. She loves all things sports and anything that has peanut butter. You can usually find her obsessing over country music. Feel free to reach her on Twitter @MckeonMara and for more formal affairs her email is [email protected]

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