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"A Free Press Behind Bars": PLN profiled

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 1995.
"A Free Press Behind Bars": PLN profiled - Seattle Times 1995

June 6, 1995, Tuesday, Final Edition



MONROE - Eight years ago, Paul Wright found himself and two accomplices in the middle of a robbery gone bad. A Federal Way man lay dead in his apartment and Wright, claiming self-defense, was clutching the semiautomatic rifle that killed him.

Today, holed up in his cell at the Washington State Reformatory, this 29-year-old ex-Army soldier says he's ditched crime for a new calling: publishing a small but widely read newsletter that serves inmates.

"It's like the farm report. If you're a farmer, you want to get the farm report, . . . " he said. "Part of what we do is let prisoners know what their rights are."

Wright, who was convicted of first-degree murder, and Daniel Pens, a convicted sex offender at Monroe, are co-editors of Prison Legal News, a monthly publication that claims 1,600 subscribers, most of whom are living behind bars in the U.S. and in 23 other countries.

They focus mostly on judicial rulings involving prison conditions and treatment, but there also are news reports on medical care and skirmishes between guards and inmates in places as far-flung as Lucasville, Ohio, and Carabobo, Venezuela.

In 1989, Wright teamed up with Ed Mead, who served 18 years for his role in bombings by the George Jackson Brigade, to create Prison Legal News (PLN). Avowed Communists, they saw it as a tool prisoners could use to empower themselves when dealing with prison officials and guards.

PLN still retains a decidedly pro-inmate slant. It often refers to prison officials as "prisoncrats" and labeled the recent political push by some state legislators to limit television and weight lifting in prisons as "a campaign of hatred."

But corrections officials say this and other prison-based newspapers have mellowed over the years. And with its staid black-and-white layout, this nationally circulated monthly might be mistaken for an academic quarterly.

Mead has been released and ordered by the state to stay away from PLN, a ban he and the ACLU are contesting in court. Wright and Pens, meanwhile, carry on "the struggle."

Several hours a week, they pore over recent court rulings at the prison law library, or write articles and editorials on personally purchased desktop computers. Like other journalists, they follow the news voraciously. They do not proclaim objectivity.

One of their latest targets: state Rep. Ida Ballasiotes of Mercer Island, the Republicans' point person on prison issues.

"It is politically safe to bash prisoners because there are no moneyed interests supporting them. Given Ida's obvious bias and personal agenda and lack of qualifications, why is she heading the corrections committee?" Wright wrote in the March issue.

Pens, a burly and bearded 39-year-old, said the publication has given him a mission and incentive to work. Prior to his conviction in 1981 for rape, he said, he was a "no-account drifter" who couldn't hold down a job sweeping floors.

"This kind of keeps me going and gives me the feeling I'm accomplishing some good somewhere," Pens said. "I read letters from prisoners who are in much worse conditions, or in some segregation unit, in the South, who say they can't get this information from anywhere else."

In five years, PLN has grown into a small but full-fledged nonprofit business.

It supports itself mostly through donations and subscriptions - $ 12 yearly for inmates, and $ 35 for attorneys, libraries, organizations and corporations.

Volunteers outside the reformatory do the layout and get each edition to an East Coast printer. Wright's father handles the subscriptions from his Florida home. A distributor in Italy oversees circulation abroad.

PLN's desktop-publishing equipment and laser printer are stored with supporters outside the reformatory. Recently its monthly editions went online, and the U.S. Department of Justice began listing PLN as a criminal-justice resource.

Manion Rice, a retired journalism professor at Southern Illinois University, which once formed a competition among inmate journals, said PLN is avoiding the general decline in circulation of prison newspapers and is one of only a handful that are independently published. Most inmate-produced publications, Rice said, are reviewed by prison wardens.

Among PLN's subscribers are defense attorneys, prisoner-support groups, correction officials and attorneys general in 25 states, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court in Cincinnati and the New York Public Library. News articles about prison strikes and legislative proposals are gleaned from correspondents behind bars and newspaper reports.

Seattle defense attorney Tim Ford considers the publication informative.

"Hopefully, inmates can use this to say something about how this (prison) system treats people and raise questions that need to be answered," he said. "They're entitled to the dialogue and to put their two cents in."

Initially, PLN was banned in all state prisons in Washington. And Wright and Pens said they still get occasional reports of it being intercepted in Walla Walla.

In 1991, Wright said, he was ordered to serve 20 days in "the hole" - solitary confinement - after he wrote an article in PLN about alleged guard brutality at Clallam Bay Correctional Center.

Ken Ducharme, head of the Washington State Reformatory, said he hasn't worried about the publication for years.

"Their (PLN) issues don't generate a lot of inmate involvement in this prison, or even the state of Washington," Ducharme said. "We watch very carefully what they do . . . and the newsletter does have a Communist tone to it, but there's not too many of those folks around in prison anymore."

Just over 100 of its subscribers are in Washington state prisons.

The publication isn't just confronting political apathy but a low literacy rate. Wright said only 40 percent to 60 percent of the nation's 1 million incarcerated criminals - the number varies regionally - can read.

Neither co-editor is sure he wants to pursue journalism as a career. Wright has nine years to go before he's eligible for release, and Pens was recently turned down by the Indeterminate Sentencing Board, which determines release dates for inmates sentenced before the Legislature established sentencing ranges in the mid-1980s.

Given the boom in the prison population, they're fairly confident Prison Legal News will survive long after they leave.

"There are prisoners in other prisons all over the country who could pick up the mantle," Pens said.