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"The Truth Will Set Him Free" - Article about PLN editor Paul Wright

Washington Law & Politics, Jan. 1, 2001.
"The Truth Will Set Him Free" - Article about PLN editor Paul Wright - Washington Law & Politics 2001

The Truth Will Set Him Free

Article by Todd Matthews / Photos by Erik Castro

Author's note: this article, which originally appeared in 'Washington Law & Politics' magazine, received third place honors in 2001 for best Political & Government reporting, as recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists

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. Notable writers such as William Greider, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Christian Parenti, Jeffrey St. Clair and William Kunstler frequently contribute to this newspaper, but you would be hard-pressed to find a copy at your nearest newsstand. And though 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, it is produced entirely by an eclectic staff of volunteers, ex-cons, established journalists, and prison inmates.

Indeed, if you are looking for the editor of this revered prison newspaper, you have to travel to Pierce County -- namely, the small town of Steilacoom, Washington. For it is across the sound from this once bustling seaport that you will find the McNeil Island Corrections Center (MICC) -- home to Paul Wright, editor of the highly praised Prison Legal News (PLN).

To say that Wright is the most notable inmate at MICC is a bit unfair and, admittedly, disturbing -- he is, after all, in prison for murder. 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 Wright is presently serving a sentence for first-degree murder. Still, Wright is one of the most respected prison writers and editors in the United States. On the 20-minute ferry ride from Steilacoom to the island -- a scenic trip complete with inmates-as-deckhands, and a small skiff with armed corrections officers donning slickers and rubber boots, shadowing the ferry at all times as we crossed the sound -- the prison's media representative told me that a national network news station had been out to visit Wright earlier this year. Celebrated and praised, 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 as we sat across from one another at a large conference table.

"The main goal I had when I started out," Wright explained, "was to give prisoners a voice and promote criminal justice issues. I also looked at it as a means of organizing prisoners, both to have a voice in terms of larger criminal justice policies as well as issues such as conditions of confinement."

Those goals, set back in 1990, when PLN was a ten-page, stapled-at-the-corner newsletter circulated among inmates, have not changed -- though PLN has, in considerable and notable ways. PLN once shared co-editors: Wright and fellow inmate Ed Mead. Mead was housed at a state prison in Monroe, Washington, and Wright was at a state prison in Clallam Bay. Wright would type 5 pages and Mead would type 5 pages. The publication was basic then; Wright and Mead were still learning the responsibilities of running an alternative publication. "One of my big questions was, 'How am I going to do margins?'" Wright recalled, laughing at his then inexperience. "Ed suggested I use a blue pencil and make little boxes and pour all the text into the boxes. PLN was real primitive back then. But as I'm fond of saying, there's no shame in starting small."

Gone are the days of blue pencils and photocopied pages. PLN is a polished monthly newspaper, with a staff of five regular columnists, twelve contributing writers, 3,500 subscribers, and a full-time circulation manager. Though Wright still works on a typewriter (inmates are not allowed computers, E-Mail, or Internet access), he corresponds regularly with Fred Markham, the manager of PLN's makeshift offices in Fremont, a Seattle neighborhood. Markham, a 63-year-old veteran of Washington and Texas prisons, oversees the subscriber database, circulation of the newspaper, and incoming phone calls, faxes and messages -- essentially, handling any newspaper-related responsibilities that Wright can't meet from behind bars.

Wright likens PLN to a trade journal, rather than a glossy magazine for the casual reader. "One of the things I've tried from the beginning is to not have a publication that washes over people," explained Wright. "Most media can be characterized as that which entertains, as opposed to that which you use. I have always hoped PLN is in the category of publications people actually read and use, as opposed to the entertainment magazines."

That said, PLN -- with its pages free of photographs, illustrations, and diagrams -- may be a bit scholarly for the casual reader. Simply put, you would be hard-pressed to find any 'fluff' in the pages of Wright's newspaper. "I've always been kind of anti-fluff," said Wright, laughing, "which may hurt our circulation." Instead, what you will find are lengthy articles on key issues impacting American prisons: privatized prison labor; the American prison population explosion; destruction of inmate property; and key Supreme Court decisions. PLN often unearths stories the mainstream media ignores, and injects a prisoner perspective into debates about crime and prisons. Moreover, it is arguably the only newspaper that keeps inmates informed about the latest legal developments. "All prisoners, for the most part, have been very supportive of PLN," explained Wright. "I think that a lot of prisoners realize that, unfortunately, this newspaper is our only voice."

Overseeing a monthly newspaper with a large subscriber-base and long list of contributing writers is no small feat for any editor. Put that editor behind bars and on a remote island, and it seems like a small miracle of sorts that such a newspaper even exists.

True, logistics are daunting. Censorship battles, however, are even more challenging.

"Believe it or not, PLN has done very well with censorship," said Wright. "It's been a constant battle over ten years -- mainly, here in Washington state but also in other parts of the country." The first three issues of PLN were banned from state prisons. The MICC prison library does not carry issues of PLN. And Wright says that, after the first issue was published, his cell was ransacked. Nonetheless, Wright is optimistic. "We've done pretty good with censorship litigation."
PLN has done better than 'good.'

Wright, ever resourceful, has tapped the resources of some of the top law firms in Seattle, seeking help on a pro bono basis. In 1997 Perkins Coie filed suit against the Washington State DOC -- citing, among other things, the DOC's ban on all bulk mail received by inmates (an act that many PLN supporters believed specifically targeted their newspaper, as PLN is mailed via bulk rate postage). And Davis, Wright Tremaine also worked on a case for PLN involving a Public Disclosure Request made by Wright and denied by the DOC.

Presently, PLN is involved in a lawsuit with the Nevada DOC stemming from a statewide ban on PLN in Nevada prisons. "That has gone very well," said Wright. "When we filed it, I guess it was a slow news day because we managed to get coverage in all six 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. Nevada has two million people and six newspapers -- and we made all six newspapers. It was a slow day for news -- no Cuban kids washing ashore, President Clinton didn't have any problems, et cetera." The suit, filed last July, has yet to be settled.

Indeed, the relationship between PLN and the mainstream media is interesting -- and has served Wright and his newspaper well. PLN often breaks stories later picked up by larger media outlets. Moreover, many newspapers have championed the same prison items as PLN -- particularly those involving censorship in American prisons. "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," explained Wright. "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."

Perhaps the most notable instance of PLN aligning itself with the mainstream media involved the Seattle Weekly. In the spring of 1999, Weekly writer Jennifer Vogel wrote an article about white supremacist activity among prison guards in several Washington prisons. Wright sent the source material -- a report by the Washington State Patrol documenting Aryan leanings on behalf of guards, including white supremacist literature in the prison and Nazi salutes -- to the Weekly; the article was published in the Weekly in March and PLN in May. The piece drew so much criticism from prison officials that it was banned from Washington state prisons.

As a result, PLN and the Weekly sued the DOC, claiming that the ban violated the First Amendment rights of publishers and prisoners alike. True, prison officials have a right to suppress incoming prisoner mail that they think could spark violence. But the plaintiffs argued there was no convincing evidence to suggest that the article would cause unrest in the prisons. Moreover, the plaintiff's attorney claimed that the DOC's actions were "a thoughtless use of censorship power at best, and a blatant cover-up at worst." But state officials, in their response to the suit, denied that banning PLN was "aimed at restricting unflattering information about the DOC." Rather, the action was intended to protect the individual guards named in the story and who, in some cases, worked inside the prisons.

According to Wright, the judge dismissed the case on the basis of Qualified Immunity -- namely, the government officials involved in the case were immune from money damages. Wright and the Weekly are presently appealing the case, and it rests with the Ninth Circuit Appellate Court. "Even if the DOC is immune from money damages," said Wright, "we should still be able to get an injunction to mandate delivery of that issue of the newspaper."

Throughout PLN's many incarnations (from a small newsletter to a monthly newspaper), the nature of American prisons has changed accordingly. Issues that PLN covered in 1990 have since disappeared, replaced by larger and more complex items -- something Wright credits to the booming prison population. "With 2 million people locked up in American prisons," observed Wright, "there's always something happening, always something to write about." The key issues Wright is tracking include victims' rights litigation, private prisons, women's needs in prison, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Ten years ago, rare was the article that was more than 1,000 words. Now, PLN regularly runs feature stories anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 words in length. Wright cites the prison statistics in Texas as a perfect example of the exploding prison population and, by default, the explosion of issues surrounding inmates. "Texas in 1990 had 40,000 prisoners," said Wright. "Now they have 160,000 prisoners. As a result, PLN has really changed in terms of size and breadth. I go with what's happening in the news. And some issues have been pretty constant. I think PLN has had the best coverage of prison issues of any publication."

Perhaps one of the most interesting subjects that PLN must cover will come in less than five years. The issue will have nothing to do with larger criminal justice policies or conditions of confinement. Rather, it will hit much closer to home. Namely, Wright will appear before the parole board in 2004. One of PLN's inherent strengths is in its 'editor-as-inmate.' Wright can't help but monitor breaking news in American prisons simply because he resides in an American prison. If Wright is released, will the newspaper lose its edge and advantage?

"I think the newspaper would change for the better," said Wright. "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, et cetera. I think those are all things that would contribute a lot toward improving PLN when I am released from prison." Moreover, battling prison censorship would be easier if he were out of prison, says Wright.

Washington state has seen a long line of prison newspapers surface then disappear. Since the late-1960s, publications such as the Red Dragon, Prison News Service, The Abolitionist, The Anarchist Black Dragon, The Bomb, and The Spark have made the rounds in American prisons. But none have lasted as long as PLN, a fact that troubles Wright. "One of the things that's kind of sad is that, while prisons have proliferated, the prisoner press has gone downhill," said Wright. "There were a lot more prisoner publications, say, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the prison population was a fraction of what it is today. I think that every state needs to have a publication like PLN." Wright paused. "That we survived at all is amazing."

This article originally appeared (in slightly different form) in the December-January 2000-2001 issue of Washington Law & Politics magazine.