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Associated Press profile on Prison Legal News, Paul Wright

AP, Jan. 1, 2009.
Associated Press profile on Prison Legal News, Paul Wright - AP 2009

Ex-con's magazine focuses on advocacy, prison life

By John Curran, Associated Press Writer | May 24, 2009

WEST BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- To prison inmates, he's a jailhouse lawyer made good.

To wardens, he's a thorn in the side.

To prison advocates, Paul Wright is a success story: Once a killer, then a prisoner, now a journalist with a cause. He has carved out a niche with his Prison Legal News, a self-help magazine.

The publication, known as PLN, does more than highlight mail censorship, sexual abuse by prison guards and prison overcrowding in its black-and-white pages. The nonprofit tabloid often takes on the role of prisoner advocate, going to court against states and private prison operators -- and winning money, reform and public attention for prisoners.

"It's a voice from the inside, but it's a helluva lot more reasoned and balanced than you might think, even though the point of view is obvious," said Fred Cohen, co-editor of Correctional Law Reporter, a trade publication that serves prison officials. "It's advocacy, in the best sense."

Wright, a former U.S. Army military policeman, started the monthly publication in 1990. Back then, he was inmate No. 930783 at Clallam Bay Correctional Center in Clallam Bay, Wash., where he served 16 years of a 25-year term for killing a cocaine dealer he was trying to rob.

Now, he produces the 56-page tabloid from a split-level home on a cul-de-sac in West Brattleboro, Vt., where he moved after his release from prison in 2003.

It's a long way from his jail cell, where Wright wrote the 10-page first edition on a typewriter, photocopied it and arranged for a contact on the outside to mail it to 75 prisoners he knew in Washington.

It was immediately banned in all state prisons in Washington, prompting Wright and co-editor Ed Mead -- also a prisoner -- to file the first of dozens of legal challenges targeting regulations that barred inmates from receiving PLN and other publications.

PLN has won similar court fights in Alabama, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon and California, where state prison officials agreed in 2006 to pay PLN $65,100 for five-year subscriptions for each of the state's 157 prison legal libraries to settle a lawsuit.

The legal challenges aren't always about getting PLN into prisoners' hands.

In 2007, the magazine won a $541,000 settlement in a public records lawsuit against the state of Washington that started with Wright's request for the identities of the Department of Corrections officials who participate in executions.

"PLN is not fighting for cable TV or air conditioning for prisoners," said Rhonda Brownstein, legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Ala. "What they're fighting for is basic human rights, and the basic human rights we're talking about are the right to be free from violence by other prisoners or guards, the right to adequate medical care, adequate mental health care and the right -- to an extent -- to freedom of expression."

But it's the magazine that reaches deepest into prison cells and law libraries.

Subtitled "Dedicated to protecting human rights," it uses lawyers, public policy experts, advocates and prison scribes as correspondents.

The premise is simple, Wright says: "We're not telling prisoners 'Hey, here's how you make bombs.' We're not telling people 'Hey, you need to kill the guards in the morning.' Rather, what we're doing is we're telling them on a fundamental level `You're human, you have civil rights and you can use the civil system to enforce them,'" he said.

The publication is stuffed with legal advice, tips on staying healthy behind bars and news about court rulings that involve prison labor, medical treatment in prisons and suicide prevention programs in prisons. Its correspondents have ranged from late civil rights attorney William Kunstler to imprisoned Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.

To prisoners, it's the Bible. After all, there's no hotter topic behind bars than the law.

"Everybody wants the case that's gonna get them out of jail," said Carol Callea, director of legal education for inmate access to courts for Vermont prisons. "When something happens, they want to know about it."

With no photos or color, and headlines like "Alabama Prisoner Awarded $90,000 for Work-Related Eye Injury" and "Pro Se Tips and Tactics," it's not a slick publication.

And it doesn't have to be. It has a captive audience.

About 80 percent of its 7,000 subscribers are incarcerated in the U.S. Subscriptions are cheaper in jail -- $24 a year for inmates, $30 for anyone not incarcerated, free for death row prisoners.

Fans of the magazine say PLN's value lies in giving prisoners truthful, no-nonsense tips to fight their legal battles and, in the process, disenfranchising jailhouse lawyers peddling less reliable information.

"It's really an extraordinary resource, and it's not just a resource for jailhouse lawyers, although it's certainly that," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project. "It's also a resource for prison rights advocates."

Not that Wright hasn't made some enemies.

"He's very bright, sometimes very effective," said Eldon Vail, secretary of the Washington state Department of Corrections, a frequent Wright target. "He has a world view shaped by his experience that isn't always right. He doesn't always preach a balanced view, but it's a prisoners' rights magazine and you don't expect that."

Wright, a 43-year-old father of two, is articulate and plainspoken in person, but says he has no interest in becoming a lawyer. He's the one sought by lawyers and others to speak at seminars and conference, he says.

With the nation's prison population surpassing 2 million people, he sees a growing market for Prison Legal News -- the only prisoners' rights publication with a national scope -- if only because it covers prison life with the inmates in mind.

"Frankly, the mainstream media, they suck on criminal justice issues. Most of what passes for criminal justice coverage, it's press release journalism. The prosecutor's office or the warden's office or the DOC office issues a press release and that's all (reporters) do.

"They don't seek any input from prisoners, prisoners' advocates, or whatever. It's just a totally one-sided story," he said.

[Minor correction made by PLN staff]



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