Interview with PLN editor Paul Wright about the news media
Interview with PLN editor Paul Wright
Oct. 27, 2016
“In prison, there’s actually an informal bartering or trading network for information.”
What did you read in the news yesterday? Is there any story you particularly remember?
All kinds of things. I remember one on the Marshall Project, because I was quoted in an article about prison censorship. The article was about a book published by a Washington prisoner named Arthur Longworth who happens to be a friend of mine. He published a book called Zek: An American Prison Story, which is about a day in the life of a prisoner in Washington. He wrote and published it and it’s been banned by the Washington prison system.
On what grounds?
They claim that it would disrupt prison security, which is usually what they claim about anything that is critical of the prison system.
What is the earliest news you ever remember reading or hearing?
The one I remember that was really big was when I was in second grade and I was going to Sacred Heart Catholic School, which is literally around 8 blocks from here. I was in second grade when Watergate was happening. Our teacher, Miss Barris, brought in the newspaper and it had articles about Richard Nixon and the impeachment proceedings starting against him.
I remember cutting out the newspaper articles and gluing them into a scrapbook which has long-since gone, but I would say that’s probably my earliest recollection of the news. I guess I've always been kind of a big consumer of the news, because I started reading the daily newspaper around the time I was 12.
Wow, that's pretty early.
Yeah, and I just got into a routine. I’d get home from school. My parents had a subscription to the Palm Beach Post, which is our local newspaper here in Palm Beach County. I’d get home from school and I’d read the newspaper. Then when I lived in Mexico for a year, I read the daily newspaper there. At the time I was living there, they had maybe 10 or 12 daily newspapers and you had your pick across the political spectrum from fairly liberal to very business conservative. They have an English language newspaper, but I can read Spanish, so at the time I read Uno Más Uno, one of the more liberal dailies in Mexico City.
Then I was in the Army and read Stars & Stripes which was the army newspaper and when I was in Washington State on an army base, I read the Tacoma Base Tribune. I then went to prison, and the whole time I there my father got me a subscription to the Seattle Times.
Was there no media available in the prison in the library?
The prison library generally had most of the major newspapers in the state, so for a lot of the time I was there I also read other newspapers. In prison, there’s actually an informal bartering or trading network for information. So for example, I got my subscription to the Seattle Times, and I would try to connect with guys who were getting a Wall Street Journal or USA Today or the New York Times. There would be whole chains of people that would read the newspaper. So one newspaper might be read by at least 15 people.
What about access to radio, TV news and Internet news, what was that like?
Everyone pretty much had a TV in the Washington State prison system in their cells, so everyone was watching the TV news. Radio was a little more iffy [sic], just because of reception issues. Prisons built out of concrete and steel aren't very good for radio reception.For a lot of time I was in prison, there was no Internet. Even where there was, prisoners don’t have legal access, so the only way they can access the Internet generally is if they have a contraband smartphone.
You were in journalism education. Was that in the prison or outside the prison?
It was in prison. I have a degree in Soviet History. I never thought of writing. I went to prison and I’ve always been a voracious reader. They gave away free subscriptions to prisoners. Then I thought, okay, I’m going to write letters to the editor and tell them what’s happening in prison!
I think it’s kind of different now because so much is digital, but in 1988, when I did this, the first place that published something I wrote was an anarchist magazine called Anarchy. They published a fairly long letter to the editor that I wrote them about my daily experiences in prison in Washington. I have no idea what their circulation was then and I’m not even sure if they’re still around now, but however small their circulation was, the act of seeing my words in print in a magazine with my byline on it was a real act of validation and affirmation. I may be in prison, but someone is seeing and reading what I have to say.
I had a subscription to the Seattle Times. There was a writer named Ricky Anderson and he occasionally wrote about prison issues. I wrote to him and I told him what was happening in prison and then he would write about it in his newspaper column. So I was like, wow, this is someone who actually cares about what was happening in prison.
That was a kind of cementing in my mind that I wanted to be a journalist. If people are apathetic, you know, there’s nothing I can do about it, but ignorance is something I can do about. I think we’re approaching a crisis of legitimacy for the American police state because we have all these means of reaching people directly that don't go through the gatekeepers. When the police murder an unarmed black man on the street by shooting him in the back, and someone videotapes it, they can post it on Twitter, they can post it on Facebook, and within a matter of minutes, half a million people have seen it. You don’t have to go through the producer at the local television station. You don’t have to go through the editor at the local newspaper.
I see that with Prison Legal News. Is from when I started out hand-typing the magazine in my prison cell in 1990 and sending it to 75 people. Today, we can post the story on our social media websites, send it out on our listserv, and within seconds, 30 or 40,000 people have it in their inboxes. From there, it’s being disseminated exponentially. Within the first 30 days of a cover story going out, usually a quarter million people will have read it. By the time the print issue goes out and people get that, another 70,000 people will have read it.
Watching the presidential debates and such, how do you think this sort of crime is being used as a political tool in this election season specifically?
Pretty much the way it's been used in all political elections in this country, going back to at least the 1968 election with Richard Nixon. You know, a friend and colleague Jonathan Simon wrote a book called, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. Basically, we've seen the massive expansion of the American Police State, and in some respects, it’s a failed promise.
Each time there's a mass shooting, a school shooting, or a guerilla attack on the US military or US political or economic targets, the solution is always to call for more surveillance, more police, harsher sentences, more death penalty. Yet each time it has failed And yet that isn’t really questioned.
Why is it still so successful in getting peoples’ votes?
Because there’s no alternative. I’ve been publishing Prison Legal News for 26 years now, and we’ve had a number of presidential elections. It’s the same formula. Our corporate and mainstream media set the discourse in this country and they don’t demand anything different from our political candidates. They also profit financially from this crime-heavy narrative, and you know, from this symbiotic relationship with the police state. So I really don’t think we’re going to see much difference. We haven’t seen any difference in major presidential candidates on criminal justice issues in this country since 1968.
What made you want to start your own newspaper in prison?
I was pretty frustrated with the fact that the corporate media and mainstream media did not report the views of prisoners or the views of our families. What passes for a criminal justice debate in this country is an extremely narrow spectrum, and yet the people that are most affected by it, the prisoners and their families, are almost totally excluded from it.
At least when it comes to criminal justices issues in this country, for many journalists, they accept statements from prison and police officials at face value. If the same thing were said by prison officials or government officials in Russia or Venezuela, or any other country, I think they’d be laughed out of the room.
Basically, if prisoners weren’t able to organize themselves, if we weren’t able to organize ourselves, to tell our own stories, to be able to report the news as it’s happening to us, no one else is going to do it.
Originally we started out as a hand-typed magazine. I typed the magazine in my cell and I sent it out to an outside volunteer to photocopy and mail to our initial subscriber list of 75 people. Now we’ve grown from 10 pages to 72 pages. We have a national circulation of around 9,000 or 10,000 subscribers around the country, as well as at our website, www.prisonlegalnews.org.
We focus on reporting all aspects of the criminal justice system, with our main focus on detention facilities and conditions of confinement.
What was your first issue like?
All of our issues are on our website. In our first issue in May of 1990, we reported on a school boycott at a prison in Washington. We reported on what was happening in other prisons around the country and we had some book reviews. When you're limited to 10 pages, and I don't know if you’ll remember typewriters, but there’s a thing with typewriters in the spacing of the fonts. You can’t get as much print onto a page as you can with computerized fonts. Right now, there’s 1,000 words per page, so I know that if I have 72 pages, in theory I can put 72,000 words in the magazine. But when you’re talking about a hand-typed newsletter, I think you’re probably going back to around 400 words on the page. So it literally comes down to, as the New York Times says, “All the news that fits.”
How did you manage the transition from publishing while you were inside prison to publishing once you were outside prison?
Well, I edited and published the magazine for its first 13 years when I was in prison from 1990–2003. I was released in December of 2003. Frankly, it wasn’t that big of a transition. In a lot of respects, the magazine had grown significantly. We’d made the transition from hand typed to desktop publishing in 1991 and made the transition from photocopy to offset printing in 1993. Then the thing was our growth and size, we started out at 10 pages. When we went to offset printing we were at 16 pages. Now we’re at 72 pages.
Who was your main subscriber base then?
Our main subscription base has always been prisoners. We reach a lot more people now than we did pre-Internet. We've lost a lot of our non-prisoner subscribers to the print magazine as they've gone over to reading us on the Internet and are just doing the digital content. When I look at our website statistics, I kind of wonder when I see that we get 150,000 to 160,000 visitors a month on our website. I see that maybe a third of those are viewing our website through a mobile device and wonder how many of those are prisoners reading our website on their contraband smartphone versus how many of them are just folks that have opted not to subscribe to the magazine and are reading our digital content for free.
You were saying earlier that you think the big gap in mainstream media coverage of criminal justice is the lack of prisoners’ voices. Criminal justice has suddenly been a big focus in the national media over the past two years. Can you give me a comparison between how you have covered a big national story and how a national newspaper, say the New York Times, has.
It's not even so much about prisoners’ voices per se. Prisoners are a kind of microcosm of American society at large. One of the things that seems to surprise a lot of people is that American prisoners are actually fairly conservative politically. Of course prisoners are disenfranchised in this country except in Maine and Vermont, but I don’t think there’s actually much of a difference politically between the prisoners and the guards.
So that’s why I say, I don’t think it’s so much about having prisoners’ voices or not, it’s the point of having critical voices. I think we see this on everything, especially on foreign policy issues, for example. You’re not really seeing any voices represented in the media that are critical of American foreign policy. At least you're not seeing that in the American media. I think that’s the same key issue with the American media on criminal justice issues.
One of the examples that really illustrates this is the issue of prison slave labor.
Here in the United States, by virtue of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, prisoners are slaves of the state. The United States never abolished slavery, they limited it to people who have been convicted of a crime. One of the issues that this gives us is that there are 2.5 million people in prison and jail. They can literally be enslaved according the Constitution. They don't have to be paid. When you look at US Media coverage of prison slave labor issues in the country of China, it’s regarded as a massive human rights violation.
Back in the mid-90s, the State of Oregon passed the ballot measure, it’s called Measure 11, which significantly expanded prison sentences in the State of Oregon. It also required that all prisoners work 40 hours a week for no pay or very little pay. I normally think The Oregonian is a fairly good paper, by American standards, in their reporting on criminal justice issues. I was in prison at the time, and someone sent me their voter guide. On every other issue that was on the ballot they had a pro and a con. When it came into Measure 11, there was only a pro on why people should vote for it, and there was no con. You’re talking about a measure, that, as we predicted at the time, has had far-reaching impacts. The Oregon prison population exploded, the cost for the government has gone up massively. You have people serving very long time periods.
There's also a real lack of transparency in our criminal justice system. We don’t even know how many people the police kill in this country every year. This is in the context that someone somewhere is being paid to count how many soybeans are harvested. There are insurance companies that will tell you every single fender-bender or car accident that's reported.
There’s a lack of data?
It’s a conscious lack of data. The data exists, but the conscious political decision has been made not to collect it, and I think that's one of the things that the media really falls down on in this country.
We have 2.5 million people locked up and very few daily newspapers even consider prisons or criminal justice to be a beat. You have reporters that are reporting on the utilities beat. Show me a newspaper in America that doesn’t have a travel section and a living section whose job it is to go out tell its readers about the new restaurants.
I think if you go to your average American who consumes the news, let’s just say at least 15 minutes a day, and ask them what’s going on with North Korea, or Iran, or what the US is doing in the Middle East, generally, those people would be able to give you some type of vague sense of what is happening. Now ask them what's happening in the jail that your tax dollars are paying for that’s in your community and that's probably within five or 10 miles of your workplace or your home. What's happening there? How many people have died in that jail in your community in the past year?
Chances are, and I’m willing to actually wager money on this because I’m pretty sure I know what the answer is, chances are they’re going to say, “I have no idea.” That’s one of the things about how the news media views criminal justice. They usually have a very symbiotic relationship with the police state in this country. The police blotter is a source of cheap news that everyone likes to read. Frankly, if you talk to any reporter that has covered the police or the police beat, they’ll tell you that if you report critically on the police, they’ll cut you off from access. It’s just that simple.
Could you imagine a society, say in 100 years, where just prisons simply don’t exist and we have an alternative form of dealing with these issues?
I think that’s one of the critical issues. Prisons are tools of social control. We look at Europe. We look at other industrialized, advanced capitalist societies, and you know, their prison populations are far lower than the United States. Then even at other extremes, China’s prison population, both per capita and in raw numbers is far lower.
One of the misnomers that I think some people have is that poor countries or poor societies have high crime rates and actually that's not the case. The bigger determinant of who has crime rates, and who doesn’t is levels of social inequality. You mentioned you’re from Switzerland. Switzerland doesn’t have a very crime rate, but it also doesn’t have very high rates of social inequality.
Not true. Because of the media—
Okay, yes, there is social inequality, but I think when you’re looking at the levels [of social inequality] though, in Brazil or El Salvador, for example, they have rates of violence and, for example, in Brazil, their police are estimated to murder at least 1,500 people a year in extrajudicial executions. This is a huge number.
Right. So what’s the alternative to prisons in the future?
I think if you have a more just economic distribution, you have lower crime rates. But in this country, that’s crazy talk. Also a lot of it has to do with how crime is defined. This is not original to me, but in this country, crime is defined as crime in the streets, not crime in the suites.
If you look at the amount of money that is lost through banking fraud by the people who are running the banks, it’s huge. It affects far more people. If I go out to the parking lot, and I’m robbed at gunpoint of my wallet, I lose whatever is in my wallet. I lose my credit cards, which I’ll get replaced, whatever cash amount is there. Yes, I'll be scared and I’ll probably be upset, but if someone loots my pension fund or I had a fraudulent home mortgage and I lose my home, that’s actually a far bigger impact than losing my wallet.
Do you dream about the news?
You're one of the first people who said yes!
Oh really? You’re talking to journalist? No one dreams about news stories?
People dream about missing their deadlines.
Oh, we’re a monthly magazine. As a journalist, I’m pretty focused on criminal justice issues. For those of us that do trade journalism or specialty journalism, no one seems to think we have any interests besides what we cover, but I'm sure my colleagues at petroleum news think about things other than oil wells. Now I'm always dreaming that I'm going to get a good whistleblower story, of a person with the inside knowledge of the dastardly deeds that are corrupting every day prisons and jails around the country.
As a journalist covering this issue, I’m aware of and very troubled by what I don’t know. When I think about we why don’t know how many people the police kill in this country, to me that’s an outrage. These are real basic questions. I’m not asking, you know, what’s the meaning of life? This is really concrete simple stuff—how many people die in their custody? Why don’t we know this?
Paul Wright is the Executive Director and the Founder of the Human Rights Defense Center. He is also the editor of Prison Legal News, amagazine he founded while in prison in Washington State in 1990, where he remained incarcerated until his release in 2003. He has co-authored three PLN anthologies: The Ceiling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry (Common Courage, 1998); Prison Nation: The Warehousing of American Poor (Routledge, 2003); and Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money from Mass Imprisonment (New Press, 2008). During and since his incarceration he has successfully litigated a wide variety of censorship and public records cases against prison systems around the country, both as a pro se plaintiff and on behalf of PLN.
Age: 51 ; • Resident since: From 1965 until 1982 and again since 2013; • Average time spent reading: 3h per day; • Favorite media outlet: I have my favorite websites, I like CounterPunch, the New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Seattle Times. Pretty much anything related to criminal justice is coming across my computer screen. I’ll confess to the guilty pleasure of the New York Post. I have other interests too. I think for Middle Eastern coverage, I like the Independent. I’m a big fan of Robert Fisk. In general, Bloomberg is also high.