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PLN sues WA DOC over censorship of Nazi guard article

Spokesman Review, Jan. 1, 1999.
PLN sues WA DOC over censorship of Nazi guard article - Spokesman Review 1999


Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA)

September 1, 1999, Wednesday

By Dan Hansen Staff writer

A newspaper published by two Washington inmates is suing the state Department of Corrections and one of its top administrators for censorship.

At issue is whether the state violated inmates' constitutional rights by banning the May issue of the Prison Legal News.

Eldon Vail, deputy assistant secretary of the Corrections Department, said he banned the newsletter from prisons statewide because of a lengthy article written by Seattle freelance reporter Jennifer Vogel. The ban affected about 100 of the newsletter's 2,900 subscribers nationwide.

Vogel's article contends the state Department of Corrections tolerates racism. White guards at several Western Washington prisons boast about being members of racist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, she wrote.

Vogel wrote that black guards are subjected to racist comments and threats and the state has done little to stop the harassment. She based her article on a 390-page Washington State Patrol report and a lawsuit filed against the state by several black guards.

Vail, who is a defendant in the federal lawsuit filed Friday in Spokane, said the article accused some guards of actions they didn't commit. He worried the article would incite violence against the guards.

"There was some accurate information in the article. There was some information that was inaccurate," said Vail.

Vogel disputed there were any inaccuracies in the story, adding that no one from the Department of Corrections has asked her to write a retraction.

"Everything I wrote was from public records," she said.

Vogel and the Seattle Weekly, an alternative newspaper that first published the story, have joined the Prison Legal News as plaintiffs in the federal suit.

George Howland Jr., the Weekly's news editor, said the newspaper was tipped to the story about prison racism by Paul Wright and Dan Pens, Western Washington inmates and co-founders of Prison Legal News. But when the Weekly sent copies of its stories to the two inmates, the one addressed to Pens was returned by prison staff as "a threat to legitimate penological objectives."

That's one reason the Weekly joined the suit, he said.

"To me, it's outrageous, the idea that somebody who was involved in the germination of a muckraking story ... is denied a final copy," said Howland. "The right to disagree and debate does not end at the prison gates."

While the article cites several incidents of alleged racism at Western Washington facilities, it lists just one at an Eastern Washington facility. A Walla Walla State Penitentiary officer in 1996 received a pay reduction for drawing a racist picture and sliding it under the door of a black inmate.

Wright said the lawsuit was filed in Eastern Washington because the U.S. District Court office in Spokane is not as busy as those elsewhere in the state.

"We'd like to get a fast resolution because there's no news worse than old news," said Wright, a convicted murderer serving time at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.

Wright and Pens founded Prison Legal News in 1990. It covers prison-related news nationwide and reports court decisions affecting prisoners.

Wright said the newsletter has a national circulation of about 2,900, about 60 percent of whom are inmates. Subscriptions are $15 a year.

Officials at the Airway Heights Correctional Center originally refused to deliver Prison Legal News to inmates, ruling it junk mail. U.S. District Court Judge Justin Quackenbush in 1997 ruled that the policy amounted to censorship.

Quackenbush ordered the state to pay Airway Heights inmate Donald Miniken $1 in damages and $30 for the two years he paid for the newsletter without receiving it.

About 30 Airway Heights inmates now get the newsletter.