In 1990, at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington State, Paul Wright and another inmate started what is now the oldest independent publication on the rights of prisoners– and perhaps the most censored media in the country – the Prison legal news.
After watching prison officers assault inmates on more than one occasion, Wright, who is 56 and still the editor of PLN, began “to think that prisoners and their families needed a voice in which passes for a debate on criminal justice issues”. He typed the first edition of PLN on a manual typewriter, and a volunteer had it copied and stapled at a nearby Kinko’s. “We had three hundred dollars, and the plan was to see how long we could hold out,” Wright said. They had been hoping for six months. “Here we are, thirty-two years later.”
PLN is part of the Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization founded by Wright in 1990. The HRDC has sued prison systems in fifteen different states, from Oregon to Virginia, for censorship, alleging – successfully, in numerous cases – violation of First Amendment rights. (No prison claimed that PLN’s articles were inaccurate.) The organization also regularly sues for violations of the Freedom of Information Act.
Since 2009, the Florida Department of Corrections has banned the magazine from its prisons. The department says the ban stems from advertisements by PLN, which “not only make banned services available to inmates, but also appear with articles about inmate phone scams, the role of Green Dot cards in prison “Prison gang extortion and the national contraband problem. Contraband like drugs and cell phones in prisons,” Paul W. Walker, a spokesperson, told me in an email.
PLN depends on its advertisers, which include a career institute offering paralegal certification, a channel guide for TV viewing, a service offering “sexy non-nude/nude photos” and a prison poetry application for a “daily devotion to come”.
“Banning these publications from reaching those in prison,” said Dan Marshall, the HRDC’s general counsel, “is an affront to the First Amendment, as well as counterproductive to the goals of safety and rehabilitation.” wright told me Florida prison ban his publication “because they can. No fascist regime tolerates a free press or critical media. He added: “They allow Nazi works like Mein Kampf, corn.
“If government employees can shut down and silence anyone who criticizes them at no cost or risk to themselves,” Wright said, “why would anyone expect them not to?”
With an almost entirely incarcerated staff and readership, PLN seeks to fill a void left by more traditional criminal justice journalism. Recent headlines include: “Live and Die on Rikers Island: The Final Episode,” “Montana renews CoreCivic contract; Major water and sewer problems persist,” and “After Second Circuit rules in his favor, Connecticut prisoner required to perform full restraints for six months takes $100,000 settlement.”
“Most of your writing that you see on criminal justice – not all of it – but a very high percentage of it gets fed to the media by law enforcement agencies who know they have clickbait, that people will read.” said Derek Gilna, a longtime PLN reporter and former Illinois state attorney. He spent five years in federal prison for bank fraud before his release in 2012. The magazine, he added, “is a much-needed resource for people to understand what goes on in prison, in prisons in county and the world of criminal justice. .”
Seventy-three-year-old Gilna met PLN when he met a prisoner-journalist while incarcerated. The man was busy writing a book and asked Gilna if he could get his story for PLN. Gilna ended up writing twenty to thirty articles a month. Finding his stories was difficult from a cell. “When you’re in jail, you don’t have access to research,” Gilna said. “I had friends outside. If I had something that really interested me and wanted more information, they would send it to me.
PLN at nine thousand paying subscribers in prisons – another vital source of income. But his issues circulate in prisons, so his readership is probably much higher. “I would say there are sort of two groups” of readers, said John Lash, who was a PLN reader during his nearly twenty-five years incarcerated in Georgia state prisons. “Any prisoner wishing to defend his own cause or who is interested in the rights of prisoners in general.” (Lash is now a PhD student in conflict studies.)
Like many other newspaper publishers, Wright— a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist with an unquenchable thirst for Diet Pepsi — worries about the cost of newsprint and ink. He is dealing with a 20% increase in printing costs over the past year, a shortage of ink and the devastating effects of covid-19-on the personnel, prisoners and employees of the postal service on whom he relies to publish and distribute the PLN.
Wright has no formal training as a journalist and does not intend to become one. He graduated from high school in three years, joined the US Army, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Soviet history from the University of Maryland. At six-foot-two, Wright is a burly man with graying hair and a thick mustache. His office is a mess of papers and books. Above his desk is an imprint of a hammer and sickle taken by late photographer Tina Modetti, Mexican political activist. (His mother was born in Tamaulipas, in northern Mexico.)
When he founded PLN, Wright was serving a twenty-five-year sentence for a murder conviction stemming from the botched robbery of a cocaine dealer. He was imprisoned for seventeen years until his release in 2003. His co-founder, Ed Mead, was part of the revolutionary George Jackson Brigade, a far-left group that orchestrated a number of bombings and flights. When Mead was released from prison, he was barred from working with the publication due to the terms of his parole.
In conversations in his office and at lunch in downtown Lake Worth, Wright disparages what he calls the corporate media. “Historically, the media has been quite subservient to the entire American police state at all levels,” he said. “If you do a search for articles reporting prison slavery, if it is happening in China, it is a gross and egregious violation of human rights that must end immediately. Prison slavery in America, however, is [portrayed as] a very healthy public policy, and it should be encouraged.
Wright estimates that he spends up to seventy hours a week as editor of PLN and executive director of HRDC. Reflecting on the fact that he has spent most of his adult life fighting censors and defending prisoners’ rights, Wright said, “The substantive issues have held up remarkably well. We have never had to remove an item.
I asked him how much his life’s work was worth. He paused, then said, “Documenting the rise of the modern American police state and the modern prison state as it happened in real time.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify references to Paul Wright’s biography and accurately reflect the founding year of HRDC.
Allison Salerno is a freelance print and broadcast journalist based in Athens, Georgia. His recent work has appeared on NPR stations, the Southern Foodway Alliance’s Gravy Podcast, and in In these times, among others. His website is allisonbsalerno.com.
TOP IMAGE: Paul Wright in his office. Photo by Allison Salerno