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Jan/Feb 2001 issue (#49)
FeaturesActivist musicians' union fights "Virtual Pit Orchestra"
Biotech Corn Recall Shows Frankenfoods Are a Menace
A New bottom Line
Editor in Prison
US, Allies, Cool their commitments on Global Warming
Greens on the Rebound
Junked Workers Give Nafta its Final Test
Kurds in the Way
Reform the Electoral College
Solidarity (and Films) Forever
Washington Court Upholds Right to Sue on Rest Break Violations
Working 16 Hours a Day for No Pay
The RegularsGreen Party
caption: Any illegal printed matter? Paul Wright is searched at the McNeil island corrections center in Steilacoom.
photo courtesy Erik Castro
If you are looking for one of the most widely read newspapers about prison-related news and analysis from across the country, don't look to a high-rise publishing house in New York City. Rather, look to Paul Wright, the editor of Prison Legal News, and an inmate at Washington State's McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) in Steilacoom. As a 21-year- old Army private, Wright shot a man to death in a failed robbery attempt. Though Wright claimed self-defense, a jury disagreed, and he is presently serving a sentence for first-degree murder. Behind bars Wright and fellow inmate Ed Mead began editing PLN, and last spring the newspaper marked its 10-year anniversary. Notable writers such as William Greider, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Christian Parenti, Jeffrey St. Clair and William Kunstler frequently contribute to PLN, and the newspaper boasts subscribers in all 50 states, readers in 23 different countries, and a subscriber-base consisting of a notable shortlist of Attorneys General, state-level Department of Corrections officials, wardens, attorneys, public defenders, appellate defenders, journalists, academics and paralegals. Celebrated and respected among advocates for prisoners, Wright's persona is larger than his demeanor: in person he is reserved, yet well spoken; foreboding, yet somewhat shy. A tall and lanky 35-year-old man, Wright greeted me with a handshake last October as we sat across from one another at a large conference table at MICC.
MATTHEWS: What was the impetus for starting Prison Legal News (PLN)?
WRIGHT: Things were going downhill for American prisoners. Prisoners had no voice in what was going on in terms of the criminal justice debate--and we also kind of got our idea from Lenin's "What Is To Be Done," where he talks about using publications as an organizing tool. I think there's a lot of similarity between the end of the last century's Czarist Russia and the end of this century's American prison system. One of the things that has happened is, I guess it's a rhetorical question: if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, would it still make noise? I think the activist's question is: if people struggle and no one knows about it, does it still count? What has happened is a struggle in prisons around the country. By deliberate design by prison officials, the geographic dispersion of prisons, and the barriers of communication that are erected, activists can be fairly isolated. Things are going on in one state's prisons and no one knows about it in another state's prisons. And this is also the fault of corporate media that tends not to cover it. Most news tends to be local, so it never makes the national media radar screen; or it gets ignored; or a lot of media rely on press releases from our prison officials.... To counter all of that, we started PLN. We figured we needed a publication where news is actually reported, and if there is a bias in the way that corporate media reports it, we are going to correct that bias by having our own bias (laughing). One of the things we hoped to do with PLN was allow activists around the country to know what's going on; people don't feel as isolated and they don't feel like they are toiling in vain or by themselves. Since we started PLN, I think there has been an increase and resurgence in activism in terms of prison issues and issues of confinement.
The first time many readers of mainstream media heard of PLN was after you filed a lawsuit with the Seattle Weekly citing censorship on behalf of the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC). Did you see a readership increase, or more letters as a result of that lawsuit?
Believe it or not, PLN has done very well with censorship. By that, I mean it's been one of those things where it's been a constant battle over ten years--mainly, here in Washington state but also in other parts of the country. And we've done pretty good with doing censorship litigation. What's happened is that when we have challenged the censorship in court, we have tried to maximize the publicity surrounding the litigation, resulting in us getting a lot of publicity we wouldn't otherwise. It works out pretty good. We tend to get a lot of support from other media because, for the most part, even elements of the corporate media still think a lot about the First Amendment and free speech. And the idea of government bureaucrats rather self-servingly censoring viewpoints or commentary that is critical of them tends to strike a raw nerve with a lot of editors. So we have done pretty good in that sense. It's hard to measure in terms of increase in circulation--part of the problem is that people don't say why they subscribe or where they heard of us, so even people we send subscription forms to send a scrap of paper and check and say, 'sign me up.' Probably one of the best cases is that we recently sued the Nevada DOC because they banned PLN from Nevada prisons for a year. We filed suit last July. That went very well in the sense that, when we filed it, I guess it was a slow news day because we managed to get coverage in all 6 newspapers in Nevada--two of them ran editorials in support. Five or six people called in saying they specifically read about us in the Nevada papers and wanted to subscribe. But that's a situation where I think we achieved media saturation because Nevada has two-million people and six newspapers--and we made all six newspapers. And it was a slow day for news--no Cuban kids washing ashore, President Clinton didn't have any problems, et cetera. In that sense, we do get additional readers.
How would you say that some of your fellow inmates view PLN?
All prisoners, for the most part, have been very supportive of PLN. Perhaps not all have been supportive enough to subscribe, but over the years, I have gotten compliments and support in terms of doing PLN. And I think that even for a lot of prisoners that don't subscribe, they realize that, unfortunately, it's the only voice we have in influencing criminal justice policy and disseminating information on challenging our conditions of confinement. It's important to note that Washington state actually has a long tradition of radical independent presses dating back to the 1960s. Though PLN is the longest lived and most successful, since 1968 there has always been some type of prisoner publication coming out of Washington state.
The two unique things about PLN are the facts that the editor is in prison and most of the writers are in prison. The paper has a very insider's feel. When you are released from prison in 2004, do you plan on continuing PLN?
Hopefully. If the financial support is there to pay me a salary, so that I can earn a living, I would like to continue editing PLN.
Do you think PLN would change?
Yes, I think it would change for the better.
How do you think PLN would change for the better?
Specifically, it's one thing to be able to research stories when you have direct access to the Internet. You can pick up the phone, do interviews, and stuff like that. I think those are all things that would contribute a lot toward improving PLN.
At the same time, do you think that maybe a little would be taken away considering that the main person--that is, when people think of PLN, they think of you--would be out of prison? Would the insider's feel of this newspaper disappear?
No. I think that the key thing that gives PLN its good feel for what's going on in the American prison system as a whole is the fact of correspondence being locked up and the flow of information that there is with people throughout the American gulag. And that's something that, if anything, would actually improve with my being released. The other thing to bear in mind is that the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has put an enormous effort over the last 10 years in shutting down PLN. And that has ranged from trying to keep PLN out of prisons in this state, as well as the kind of back-end restriction of information.
Are there some goals that you set out to accomplish, that PLN hasn't met but you'd like to see fulfilled?
Probably the biggest one is expanding our circulation dramatically. But that's been one of the things where we have been pretty much underfunded throughout our whole existence. In fact, we're largely reader supported, so just the fact that we have survived at all is kind of amazing. That said, there are other things we would like to do, such as printing on better quality paper, having more staff, et cetera. But as I'm fond of saying, PLN doesn't have any problems that money couldn't solve. And from talking to other publishers and editors, those tend to be kind of the woes of the alternative press. They aren't just specifically confined to PLN. In some respect, it's not our biggest failure, but we haven't had much impact on the phenomenon of mass imprisonment. When PLN started in 1990, there was around 1 million people locked up in American prisons and jails; and at this point we're over the 2 million mark. But then no one else seems to have had much impact on that, either.
A one-year subscription to Prison Legal News is $18 for prisoners, $25 for other individuals, and $60 for lawyers and institutions. Send to Prison Legal News, 2400 NW 80th St, #148, Seattle WA 98117, tel. 360-805-1037 for info.
The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) is proposing a budget reduction to Governor Locke including the elimination of all of the state's prison law libraries, resources that help prisoners know their rights and case law that can help them file appeals or other actions. Prison Legal News urges you to leave a message asking Governor Locke to preserve the funding. the state's toll-free legislative hotline is 1-800-562-6000.