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PLN settles censorship suit against NY State Dept. of Corrections

Times Union, Jan. 1, 2012.
PLN settles censorship suit against NY State Dept. of Corrections - Times Union 2012

Words land behind bars

Prison agency agrees to lift ban on publication credited with informing inmates about their rights

By Alysia Santo

Updated 11:57 p.m., Sunday, July 29, 2012

An unusual magazine editor, who happens to be a convicted murderer, went to war with New York state's prison system — and he won.

Paul Wright is the editor of Prison Legal News, a 56-page monthly that reports extensively on correctional facilities. For 19 years, Wright delivered his magazine to people controlled by the New York state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Then, in 2009, DOCCS abruptly banned the nonprofit publication.

Why? The state said PLN accepts postage stamps as payment, and displays advertising about itself and other companies that do the same. The use of stamps as currency is common in prisons. Wright fought the censorship by suing. Facing federal court, DOCCS changed their media policy early this year to allow the magazine's distribution.

New York prisoners had used stamps to purchase PLN subscriptions without incident since the magazine was founded in 1990, says Wright. But according to an email from the agency's director of public information, Peter Cutler, "The Department has a long standing policy regarding the misuse of stamps as currency," and that landed PLN on the department's "disapproved vendor" list.

That's not how Wright sees it. "State prison officials are using pretextual excuses to censor our publications and books, which inform prisoners how to vindicate their few remaining rights."

After trying to resolve the ban outside court for almost two years, PLN filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last October against DOCCS officials, including Commissioner Brian Fischer, alleging First Amendment violations for an "unconstitutional policy" that banned all materials distributed by PLN.

Prison spokesman Cutler disputed the censorship accusations, saying PLN's "advertisements soliciting stamps" violated "our rules and pose real security concerns and these were the real issues at stake and not a pretext for censorship of PLN."

Refusal to deliver PLN to inmates is a common occurrence, though the reasoning invoked by prisons and governments has varied. New York became the 10th state to unsuccessfully ban PLN, but was the first to cite postage-stamp rules as a reason.

Wright's perspective on free speech in prisons comes from personal experience. He started PLN while an inmate in Washington state, and faced disciplinary intimidation for his work, including stints in solitary confinement.

His journey through the penal system began at age 21. He attempted to rob a drug dealer in Federal Way, Wash. When the man reached for a gun, Wright pulled his trigger first. He was convicted of felony murder — causing a death during commission of a serious crime.

Behind bars, Wright was surprised by how guards treat prisoners. "I started to feel that regardless of what I'd been convicted of, I deserved to be treated better than I was," said Wright. He studied the law and prisoners' rights, transforming himself into a jailhouse lawyer and journalist, and eventually a publisher. He covered prison conditions for PLN, which began as a 10-page stapled newsletter. Soon, filing litigation against prisons and jails that attempted to censor PLN became a big part of the job, and remains so.

After serving 17 years of a 25-year sentence, Wright was released in 2003. He now runs the magazine and its umbrella organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, with his staff in West Brattleboro, Vt. This July marked the 271st issue.

The stories are hard-hitting and disturbing. Rather than speculate, articles are mostly constructed from published cases, government regulations, and reports from human rights organizations. Stories published during New York's three-year ban included "Thou Shalt Not: Sexual Misconduct by Prison and Jail Chaplains," an investigation into rapes of inmates by members of the clergy nationwide; "Celebrity Justice: Prison Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," which chronicled the renting of amenity-stocked private cells by affluent prisoners in California; and "New York Prisons Avoid Budget Axe," which looked at wastefulness in upstate facilities (a prison in New York's Lyon Mountain facility reportedly had 91 employees and 135 prisoners).

Prison labor, excessive force, medical neglect and the private prison industry are regular subjects. PLN has never retracted a story.

The magazine also summarizes case law, which has helped prisoners in court. Brett Dignam, a law professor at Columbia University, describes PLN as "the biggest source of information for people who are incarcerated." That's why she represented PLN pro bono between 2009 and 2010 before a Freedom of Information commission and superior court in Connecticut.

"I've represented prisoners who understood the law because of their subscription to PLN," said Dignam.

Which makes it all the more important to inmates to receive their copy. In 2009, PLN received notice from DOCCS that PLN's references to acceptance of postage stamps as payment had resulted in its inclusion on the "disapproved vendor" list, and to resume communication with those in the state's custody, PLN was ordered to "remove all reference to this method of payment from [its] literature.''

But PLN books and other publications without any reference to postage stamps were also intercepted. Even legal mail from staff attorneys to their clients at Green Haven Correctional Facility was returned.

Cutler, DOCCS spokesman, wrote that this legal mail incident was a "misunderstanding" and that all interceptions resulted from PLN's status as a "disapproved vendor."

In January 2012, three months after PLN's lawsuit, DOCCS resumed delivery of PLN materials and issued a memorandum to superintendents explaining a new policy regarding advertisements that solicit activity expressly banned by DOCCS.

"Rather than barring the introduction of these publications altogether," correctional facilities are to attach a notice informing inmates that responding to "advertisements that violate the Standards of Inmate Behavior will subject you to disciplinary action." DOCCS settled with PLN in June for $75,000. An attorney fees award is still being negotiated.

"In my opinion, the state responded in a responsible and direct manner," says Elmer R. Keach, the attorney representing PLN. "They changed regulations because of our case. That's a pretty big deal."