From Prison to American Prison Newspapers Engagement Editor

Success after prison is increasingly possible. Here is how it became a reality for me.

Morgan Godvin
5 min readNov 4, 2021

“A few short years ago, a prison sentence would hardly have been considered a job qualification,” began my cover letter. I wasn’t committed to getting a job so soon after graduation. I could take risks.

I have no experience as an editor of any type. I’m a freelance writer, with my first piece publishing while I was still locked up. I didn’t even have the internet to be able to read my own words, though an uncharacteristically compassionate staff member let me see it on their computer.

I’ve taken exactly one writing class in my entire life. And yet I am now the engagement editor with JSTOR Daily over the American Prison Newspapers collection.

Collage of images of covers from prison newspapers within the American Prison Newspapers collection. Source:

My lone writing course was in 2009 at Portland Community College. Writing 121. I was already addicted to heroin. I got a B.

I remember lying to the professor and claiming I’d just had a wisdom tooth extracted and was still taking Percocet for the pain. That’s why I’m falling asleep during lecture. An assignment that I banged out in the minutes before class inspired that professor—the one suspicious of my heavy eyelids—to pull me aside.

“You’re an excellent writer,” he tried to convince me. I dismissed it as placation or a tactic to increase my spotty attendance and even spottier engagement. I, to be sure, cannot write well.

Five fairly predictable years later, I found myself in prison. My first published work, co-published with The Marshall Project and Vice, was thanks to the tireless assistance of Debi Campbell at Families Against Mandatory Minimum sentences. I wrote about using a federal prison sentence as Spanish language immersion, since there were zero educational programs available to me. From that first essay, my confidence grew.

From the week of my release in 2018 through August of this year, I was an undergraduate student at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health. My education bolstered my expertise and my confidence and taught me to see the world through a public health lens. Though never exactly aspiring to a writing career, I found I had much to say. I began publishing essays and op-eds, getting supremely lucky in my submissions.

Then in 2019, Charlotte West, a higher education journalist, interviewed me for a story about doing study abroad while on federal probation. Previously, I had been fumbling in the dark. In her, I suddenly found a journalism mentor. She taught me the lingo (nut graf is a real term), how to pitch, and use Otter for transcribing interviews. My accidental career took off and my portfolio grew.

Twitter, an odd beast, allowed me to connect with prominent academics across the country. Leo Beletsky, executive director of Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University, plucked me from relative obscurity and then taught me how to be an academic. Or at least how to navigate within academia, going so far as to bestow the title of Research Associate upon me for my work with the lab.

I struggle with imposter syndrome. I did not study the craft. I surely didn’t go to j-school. I recognize that with doses of luck, privilege, and obnoxious tenacity, I skipped several rungs of the career ladder.

I read it over and over. My uncommon collection of skills and experiences were coalescing into what was a dream job of mine, one I never allowed myself to dream.

Still, I still never aspired to a full-time career in writing or anything related to it. After all, I have bills to pay!

Finally closing the chapter that had began the week of my release from prison, I was ecstatic to graduate this past summer. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a double major, Spanish (thanks, prison) and community health promotion, out of the University Honors College.

Skipping my virtual commencement ceremony to take a ride on a paddleboat in New Orleans, Louisiana. June 2021.

A judge and mentor of mine forwarded me a job posting sent to her by a formerly incarcerated law student with whom I had been published in a legal newsletter. The email came just days after I finished my Bachelors.

I had no particular affinity to finding a job. I’m writing a memoir and trying to finish it before I start law school. But the job! The description read as if it had been meant for me. It required a peculiar combination: a profound knowledge of the US prison system, skilled writing, a blend of academia and journalism, and deft use of promotion and social media.

Formerly incarcerated people are strongly encouraged to apply.

I read it over and over. My uncommon collection of skills and experiences were coalescing into what was a dream job of mine, one I never allowed myself to dream.

I applied. And much to my surprise, I got the job. I am now the engagement editor over the American Prison Newspapers collection with JSTOR Daily. The collection is vast and fascinating and presents endless opportunities for stories. My job is to get those stories written, read, and to show people why prison history matters today.

A cover of a magazine, Anarchist Black Dragon, with an illustration of a dragon playing a cello while locked in a cage.
The cover of an issue of Anarchist Black Dragon from the American Prison Newspapers collection. Source:

From our ever-evolving philosophy on what is the “purpose” of prisons—to punish or to rehabilitate—to subtle peeks into the humanity and creativity of incarcerated people through the decades, there is something for everyone. Visual and performing arts, music, poetry, parole, clemency, education and vocational training, mental health, medical care, and the real-life impacts of abstract political decisions, the American Prison Newspapers collection provides not only a glimpse into our past, but into our future.

Accepting this job that is prestigious by my standards has not been without its difficulties. Much of my identity was wrapped up in my lifelong experiences with adversity. I am now far removed from my past experiences, operating in spheres of society I hadn’t known existed. My imposter syndrome rages with the word “editor” in my title, the ability to commission freelance writers to write for us, and everything in between. Striking the balance between personal and professional growth while still maintaining true to my roots is an ongoing battle. But I am happy. And I am proud of the work I do.

Five years ago, society was not ready for a professional career based around someone’s imprisonment. Today, I have stumbled into a career I did not know existed. I do not feel tokenized, I feel valued for my expertise. Times are changing, thanks to the tireless work of advocates on the ground that has trickled up into some institutions. May they lead the way so that others follow.



Morgan Godvin

Writer. Speaker. Justice and health. Jails and prisons. Veterans. Politics and government.