Skip navigation

PLN, Paul Wright and Dan Pens profiled in CA article

Daily Journal, Jan. 1, 1997.
PLN, Paul Wright and Dan Pens profiled in CA article - Daily Journal 1997

AUGUST 8, 1997

Inmate Newsletter Considers The Law From the Inside Out

Newsletter Views Inmates Rights

By Heather Gordon

Special to the Daily Journal

SEATTLE - Dan Pens and Paul Wright have been working on the same newspaper for four years, yet they never see each other. They correspond strictly through the mail, and a person Pens refers to as a "mail wrangler" censors his letters before he even sees them.

Kind of tough for two guys just trying to assert their First Amendment

But then, these aren't your typical journalists. Ten years ago Wright was convicted of first-degree murder. Pens is a convicted sex offender. Together they produce Prison Legal News, an internationally circulated prison newsletter edited solely by inmates.

PLN began eight years ago when Wright and Ed Mead, both housed at the
Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, felt there was a need for prisoners to have a voice in criminal justice issues. Mead, Wright's original co-editor, was released in 1993 after serving 18 years for his involvement in the George Jackson Brigade bombings.

PLN was launched with the idea of combating prisoner apathy, from both
prisoners and "free" people. Wright and Mead wanted to inform outsiders, especially prison lawyers, what was happening behind bars.

Pens, who is incarcerated at Washington's Twin Rivers Correction Center, also in Monroe, originally became involved with PLN by designing a database program for its subscriptions. He also contributed articles to PLN. He took over as co-editor after Mead's release.

Wright's own experience inspired him to start PLN. When he first entered prison 10 years ago, he had no idea what his rights were.
"If you don't know what your civil rights are, then how do you know when they are being violated?" he asked.

In addition, prison officials feed prisoners the common misconception that they don't have any rights, Wright continued.

"However, we don't park the Constitution at the prison gates," he said.

Wright and Pens note that it's hard to produce a newspaper while

"The walls keep us in and the information out," Wright said.

"It's incredibly difficult to be a reporter when you are constrained to using only the mail," Pens said. "You can't visit; you can't call."
However, producing the paper is not their biggest problem. Rather, it is the censorship they face circulating PLN to other prisoners.

Wright calls the problem harassment. He says that the prison officials who have made distribution difficult "swear up and down that [any censorship] is not content-related."

Both Wright and Pens are familiar with the censorship process. Typically, newsletters are only censored if they threaten prison security. "And our paper is no threat to security," Wright said.

"We try to maintain professional journalistic standards," Pens said. "It makes for a better product and protects us from censorship and harassment."

Wright talks of the latest example: The Washington State Department of
Corrections is threatening to refuse to deliver third-class mail from
nonprofit organizations.

"Conveniently, this includes PLN and the ACLU prison newsletter, a quarterly publication called the Journal," he said. These types of publications would be the only mailings affected by this ban.

In the past, PLN has experienced other problems with distribution. The first three issues were banned in Washington state prisons, the first 18 in Texas prisons.

Now there are only sporadic problems with circulation to prisoners at Walla Walla and at Airway Heights Correction Center in Spokane. And the Texas Department of Corrections will now deliver every issue, just two or three months late.

Prison officials say it takes them that long to read through each issue for objectionable content, according to Wright.

Also, some prisons now claim that their rules allow prisoners to buy PLN subscriptions only through their own accounts, Wright said. Relatives and others on the outside may not purchase subscriptions for prisoners. Wright says this issue will be litigated by the ACLU.

PLN's first issue in May 1990 was a modest collection of stapled,
photocopied pages, with 75 subscribers. Today it is a professionally printed booklet of 24 pages with more than 2,300 subscribers around the world. About two-thirds are prisoners. The rest of the subscriber base consists of attorneys, attorneys general, journalists, doctors, law professors, teachers and what Wright describes as "concerned citizens."

PLN has a publisher in Seattle to handle national circulation and
distributors in Canada and Italy to handle circulation in 27 countries.

PLN covers recent rulings, verdicts and settlements and other issues
affecting prisoners and prisons around the world.

"We report every single [trial] win by prisoners," Wright said. The March 1996 issue featured an Indiana lawyer who won the first prisoner Americans With Disabilities Act suit to go to trial, obtaining a $30,000 verdict for the plaintiff.

A recent addition to PLN is a roundup of news on the Prison Legal Reform Act.

PLN does take a biased, pro-prisoner stance. Prison officials are often called "prisoncrats." In an article by Pens about allegedly racist guards at Florida prisons, one black guard, Wayne Bythwood, complained about white guards treating him "just like an inmate." PLN's commentary: "The implication, of course, of Blythwood's statement ... is that it's okay to 'treat inmates' to racial hatred. It is only a problem, and it's only news, when black guards get the same treatment."

Wright said he simply tries to put inmate stories in context by printing both sides of the story so that readers may make up their own minds.

He criticizes the mainstream media for not being "too keen on the prisoners' side of an issue." If, for instance, a prison riot breaks out, the media ignore investigating the reasons why the riot started, he says.

Wright and Pens gather and edit the articles for each issue, with Wright focusing on legal issues from advance sheets and Pens concentrating on the news. Supporters on the outside do the actual desktop publishing. The pages are sent to Wright and Pens for last-minute editing, and then an outside press prints and mails each issue.

Some of the stories come from other publications, readers all over the
nation send in letters and articles, and attorneys keep Wright and Pens posted on jury verdicts and settlements.

PLN has readers in every major prison and typically receives letters from inmates whenever something breaks at their prison, Wright said.
Pens says they flat-out reject about 95 percent of letters from prisoners because they are either poorly written or too "whiny."
"But most of our [prisoner] readers have pretty good heads on their
shoulders," he said, despite the fact that 40 to 80 percent of the prison population is illiterate.

"Honestly, [prisoner illiteracy] is the least of our problems," Wright said, "as long as we get into the door of the prisons."

Original articles have appeared in PLN. Pens broke a story in April 1996 on Microsoft using prison labor, and Wright has written articles on Boeing doing the same.

"We've used prison labor as a wedge issue," Wright said.

PLN operates as a nonprofit paper, and is solely supported by subscriptions. Wright wants to keep it that way.

"Most prison papers are edited by the local warden because they are printed with state funds," he explained. "[They] become PR sheets for the wardens.

If we can remain self-sufficient, our coverage will be what the readers want to read."

However, PLN recently received two grants that Wright and Pens are using to fund programs designed to boost paid circulation.

PLN also publishes articles highlighting litigation strategies. Often, a year or two after an article is published, Wright and Pens will discover notices filed by prisoners who used those litigation tips. They say it is gratifying to see PLN create that kind of an impact.
And Wright stresses now that the political climate is so anti-prison, it is important for prison advocates to have access to reliable information.

"At this point there is a greater need than ever for this kind of
information," he said. "There are over 1.5 million prisoners, and [the
advocacy of prisoners' rights] will always be an issue unless the U.S.
changes its incarceration policies."

Wright hopes to continue working on Prison Legal News after he is released in January 2004.