Vanguard News and Ben Free Project Announce Outside-In Carceral Media Partnership Empowering Incarcerated Journalists

Caption: “2024 Vanguard Fellowship winners Ghostwrite Mike and The Mundo Press will unveil their Inner Views virtual interview series within Vanguard’s online carceral journalism digital platform Witness.” Photo: Muna Malik

by Elisa Plata

When Benjamin Frandsen was paroled from Valley State Prison (VSP) after nearly two decades of confinement, he enrolled at UCLA to pursue his undergraduate degree in English Literature and formed the Ben Free Project (BFP), a nonprofit network of justice-impacted stakeholders committed to improving the lives of disenfranchised citizens living in confinement and those returning to the free world.

Less than two years later, no longer on parole and poised to graduate with high honors, Frandsen now looks forward to attending graduate school, beginning his teaching career, publishing a memoir, and aligning his organization with partner entities to maximize the delivery of creative agency to underrepresented populations.

“I am so very proud to announce a series of meaningful partnerships and collaborations that will support the people power of our Ben Free Project mission and make good on our commitment to utilize literature, the arts, and media tools to center the lived experience of those surviving the carceral state,” Frandsen said.

On March 4, 2024, in partnership with UCLA Professor Adam Bradley’s RAP Lab, the Ben Free Project hosted the inaugural Unchained Voices Restorative Justice Festival, a speaker symposium and benefit concert event. From the stage, Frandsen announced “an array of nonprofit journalism ventures developed in collaboration with the Davis Vanguard and its Social Justice Desk newsroom, involving the formation of the Vanguard Carceral Journalism Guild (VCJG), the awarding of Vanguard Fellowships to two incarcerated journalists, and the development of an online news platform called Witness, dedicated to centering the lived experience of confined citizens.”

David Greenwald, the Founder, Editor, and Executive Director of the People’s Vanguard of Davis, described his news organization’s partnership with BFP as “a reflection of the Vanguard‘s commitment to the enfranchisement and humanization of carceral state resident journalists. It sets the standard for incarcerated press freedoms writ large, by enabling the authentic curation of a primary source record of mass incarceration that centers first-person reporting before our 2.2 million readers. Allowing confined journalists to harness our newsroom’s dynamic capacity to distribute digital content moves us all towards the rehabilitative goal of normalization while ensuring the democratization of free speech by way of delivering real-world agency to marginalized content creators. We couldn’t be more proud to amplify and learn from these marginalized perspectives.”

The establishment of the VCJG will formalize how BFP and the Vanguard work collaboratively to mentor incarcerated writers and teach the craft of journalism. Frandsen heralded how “our Ben Free Project collaboration with Professor Bradley’s RAP Lab has already been instrumental in allowing us to enlist a small army of UCLA student interns interested in creative writing who can easily migrate into the journalism space. We have social media bloggers, screenplay writers, Ph.D. candidates, law school students, and even a current student editor of UCLA’s West Wind publication within our current pool of interns working remotely on projects in our Slack channels. Each of these folks presents a unique perspective and touchstone writing skill that  expands into the varied demands of journalism.”

This year’s inaugural Vanguard Fellowship winners Ghostwrite Mike and The Mundo Press are each incarcerated Los Angeles Vanguard journalists who have been regularly filing stories as an anonymized duo working under the editorial supervision of Frandsen, following appearances in Columbia University’s School of the Arts literary magazine Exchange, Slate, College Inside, San Quentin News, and having been quoted in UCLA’s Daily Bruin. In addition to their news column work reporting about carceral life, as Vanguard Fellows, the duo will continue the interview journalism work that first garnered them the interest of the Ivy League editors of Exchange when they conducted a virtual interview of the American Book Award-winning poets Reginald Dwayne Betts and Randall Horton about the state of carceral media and the arts from behind the wall.

Frandsen, who was published in Exchange three times over three years while confined, praised the duo for doing what hadn’t been done before by “placing a trifecta of content with the School of the Arts publication in the same year, in three distinct content categories. First, they kicked the door down with a top-shelf interview of arguably the two most prolific and accomplished formerly incarcerated poets on the planet –and they did that entirely by themselves. They reached out to Dwayne Betts, established a relationship with him, and met him in person when his Freedom Reads organization traveled to Valley State Prison in California. Soon afterward, they built a relationship with Randall Horton that was enabled by Dwayne—entirely from their prison cell, using their prison-issued tablet device. Exchange had never featured carceral interview journalism of any kind before Ghostwrite Mike and The Mundo Press did it. Secondly, they placed an incredible illustration by an artist who has since also been credited in the Davis Vanguard and College Inside, showing their photo editor skills. Thirdly, they placed an original song by their poetry band Broken Soulz, which is available for download via Columbia’s online platform.”

Greenwald described how “in collaboration with the Ben Free Project, the VCJG will develop a dedicated online presence that centers carceral journalism content within the Vanguard News ecosystem called Witness, where this year’s fellows will continue their prior interview work under the Inner Views banner, pushing out a continuing series of compelling conversations with diverse guests. Ghost and Mundo have proven to be resourceful, creative, and steadfast in pursuing stories that live beyond the fenced-in safe spaces of content often found in institution-authorized publications. With the Witness platform, we intend to normalize outside-in engagements of all types and expand the territory within which incarcerated journalists can work. If the subject matter of mass incarceration is serious enough to garner Pulitzer Prizes for those who write about its root causes and consequences, it is only proper that we amplify the voices of those living in that experience and assist them in the responsible interrogation of their condition.”

Ghost described it as “a great honor to be recognized in this way by the Vanguard, to be part of the ground-floor formation of the VCJG, and to be able to help contribute to the development of the Witness platform into a thriving newsroom. We know the stories that live behind the fence line better than everyone who doesn’t share our address, and we have the discernment to excavate those stories in the nuanced way the political realities and power dynamics of our circumstances compel. We are very aware of the unique privilege this opportunity affords us to transform and develop other institutions. We are students of Doran Larson’s nuanced conception of abolition, card-carrying citizen residents of the Fourth City, and committed to resisting the civic death called prison, designed to imprison us until we’ve carried out our sentences. Journalism is the civic engagement action work we accomplish to dismantle the alleged differences between inmate and citizen.”

For Mundo, “journalism is an equalizer, a bridge, a mural perhaps. It’s a brave new world still, in many ways, and yet we are surrounded by those embittered masses still clinging to Hanlon’s razor—ignorance abounds as most of our peers don’t even grasp the bravery of this sentence’s imbued reference. I am grateful to have this mantle, and I can promise you that we will not misuse it.”

He explained, “We aren’t here to litigate the past, but to apprehend it, so that we might model for our peers how to query the causes that undergird how we each arrived here. Self-examination is the prevailing touchstone—investigation is at the heart of it all, right? That’s what writing is, an excavation. We aren’t in this to be applauded but to push our betters to the front of the stage so that they might be seen for the first time and the audience made aware of that which is too often lost in the curtain’s shadow. We use pen names so that naysayers can’t ever deride our motives as glory-seeking, and because we are reinventing, shedding scales, and ever-changing.”

Ringo Award-winning graphic novelist and Ben’s fellow Immortal Studios comic creator, Rylend Grant, announces a new partnership between his company, Half-Evil Comics, and the Ben Free Project, to publish a collaboration between professional and incarcerated writers and artists.

Ghost and Mundo texted Frandsen: “To the Vanguard staff, David, Ben, all the Ben Free interns, Dwayne, Randall, Mitch, Natalie, Caits, Adam, and every pen pusher in the cut, gracias. We made it. To Sol Guy, Charlotte West, Devin Waldman, Kim Kardashian, John Murillo, and Calvin Williams—thank you for indulging us, leaning in, and extending your hand. To Elon Musk, Saul Williams, Elizabeth Hinton, Doran Larson, Heather Ann Thompson, and Scott Budnick, we hope to have a conversation with you someday soon, so that everyone might witness how normalization begets transformation.”

In addition to the Witness platform and the Inner Views interview series, Frandsen hopes to deliver nonprofit audio journalism podcasts and audiobook programming experiences to California’s prison facility residents that teach audio technology skills, bestow an accredited college credential, and distribute resident-created content to the public via the Vanguard’s Witness portal. “There are ripe opportunities to present responsible first-person narrative testimonials to confined populations and the public that address experiences that are unique to incarceration. Attending college, dropping out of a gang, shaking off an addiction, pushing past trauma, paroling after a life sentence, having an LWOP [life without the possibility of parole] sentence commuted—these are each powerful cornerstone pivots that reshape an errant life. These are the teachable-moment life lessons I have found to be the shared DNA among those of us who have emerged from the catacombs and returned to the free world.”

Frandsen’s organization has built a network of synergies bringing together diverse justice-impacted stakeholders. Right before the Unchained Voices Restorative Justice Festival, he received a phone call from Moira Marquis, Senior Manager of PEN America’s Freewrite Project. She informed him that PEN America wanted to contribute to the festival and say a few words. PEN sent their Los Angeles staff to attend and to set up a table for PEN amongst the other tabling group attendees such as UCLA’s Activism Through Policy, the Prison Education Program, Project Rebound, Underground Scholars, and Drop LWOP. Robbie Pollock, PEN’s Prison Writing Program Manager, had this to say about the festival: “Since I was at PEN five years ago and read the first poem by Ben, I was excited about everything he had to offer the world, and now I’m so excited that even more voices are going to get celebrated at the event.” At the festival, Jenn Dees of PEN stepped to the microphone to convey PEN’s excitement at the prospect of continuing to collaborate with the Ben Free Project in the coming years.

Former Director of PEN America’s Prison Writing Program, Cait’s Meissner, announces the Barz Behind Bars Poetry Contest. She, Ben, and two-time American Book Award winner for poetry, Dr. Randall Horton, read the winning incarcerated writers’ poems aloud onstage.

An integral part of the festival was the Barz Behind Bars Poetry contest, where the winners were announced and had their poems read aloud by Dr. Randall Horton, two-time American Book Award winner for Poetry; Caits Meissner, former Director of the PEN America Prison Writing Program; and Ben. The contest winners were as follows:

First Place: “Let Me Bleed” by Ms. Bobbie Michelle Trujillo
Second Place: “Thing” by Ghostwrite Mike
Third Place: “Criminally Insane” by Ms. “Jane Dough”

Another partnership announcement at the event came from Rylend Grant, Ringo Award-winning graphic novelist, announcing the partnership of his company, Half-Evil Comics, and the Ben Free Project, in creating a collaborative anthology featuring professional writers, graphic novelists, artists, and their incarcerated counterparts skilled in these same areas. “The men and women inside prisons have important stories to tell. And now, thanks to our partnership with the Ben Free Project, those stories will be told in a very unique, powerful, and public way.”

Through Partnerships like these, the Ben Free Project wants to embrace its collaborator organizations such as Radical Reversal, Coin Media Group, Freedom Reads, Vet Phoenix, RevolverTV, Extreme on Promotions, Undrgrnd Magazine, the Davis Vanguard, and PEN America to amplify voices the unheard voices of confined citizens, and allow the rest of the world to enjoy their artistry.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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