In early 1887, an inmate by the name of Lew P. Shoonmaker of Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater decided to explore the possibility of publishing a newspaper. Schoonmaker, a former bookkeeper from Wisconsin, went to Stillwater in 1886 to serve a two-year sentence for forgery.
Schoonmaker spent several months trying to persuade the warden on the merits of the revolutionary idea of a newspaper funded, written, edited, and published by inmates. When the project was finally approved, Schoonmaker went looking for investors.
The first name on his list: outlaw Cole Younger. He and his brothers Bob and Jim were serving life terms at hard labor for their roles in the botched robbery of First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota.
Shoonmaker figured by enlisting Cole Younger, the publication would enjoy immediate legitimacy and, of course, sell more newspapers. At the time, Cole served as the prison’s librarian. Jim was named the facility’s postmaster. Bob worked as a clerk.
The Younger brothers came up with $50—a quarter of the required start-up capital.
Shoonmaker and several other inmates also kicked in some cash.
Schoonmaker became editor and hired Cole as associate editor and printer’s assistant.
Cole liked Shoonmaker’s business model, which called for the money to be earmarked for the prison library once the investors were repaid at the rate of three percent interest a month. When everyone was paid back, the library would own the paper and subsequently pay for new books and other materials.
The new publication—The Prison Mirror—debuted Aug. 10, 1887, and was made available to prisoners and non-prisoners.
Each issue cost five-cents. Annual subscriptions when for $1. Several local merchants helped the bottom line by buying advertising space in the new paper.
The first issue was four pages long, 14 by 17 inches. The opening article, written by the founders, declared:
“It is with no little pride and pleasure [that] we present to you, kind reader, this our initiative number of THE PRISON MIRROR, believing as we do, that the introduction of the printing press into the great penal institutions of our land, is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform.”
In addition to prison news and humorous and literary submissions, the paper pledged to “encourage prison literary talent [and] instruct, assist, encourage, and entertain.” It also promised to serve as an independent voice for prisoners and operate without official oversight.
In the same issue, the newly-appointed warden—Halvur Stordock—advised readers he was entirely behind the project. He also emphasized that the Mirror was not funded by taxes.
“If it shall prove a failure, then the blamed must all rest on me,” he said. “It if shall be a success, then all credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work.”
Shoonmaker resigned when the second issue of the Mirror was published, possibly because of his scheduled release. Younger also decided to hang up his editorial hat. According to some reports, his role at the paper had diverted his time and attention from the prison library.
The Mirror, believed the oldest continuously published prison paper in the U.S., celebrated its 130th anniversary this year. Over 2200 copies are printed each month—most of them for inmates. A couple of hundred copies are distributed to prison advocacy groups, as well as law schools and other organizations.
The Mirror has been ranked several times as the best prison newspaper in the country.
Unlike the days when Warden Stordock allowed the prison staff to run the show, today’s version of the Mirror is different. Its contents are closely scrutinized by prison officials and the inmates themselves.
Each issue is now reviewed by several departments before the warden signs off on the material before it goes to print.
Even with editorial watchdogs in place, the Mirror still manages to publish breakthrough stories now and then.
In 2012, editor Matt Gretz conducted an investigation that revealed Minnesota lawmakers had taken $1.2 million in profits from Stillwater’s prison canteen to offset budget cuts in 2011.
Over the years, the paper covered labor strikes of the early 20th Century, women’s suffrage, and the deadly A-Block rampage in 1975.
The Mirror is published monthly at the Minnesota Stillwater Correctional Facility. Subscriptions are $12. The newspaper’s debut edition displayed the motto: “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.”
The motto was changed a few issues later to read: "It’s Never Too Late To Mend.”