PLN editor Paul Wright profiled in hometown paper
How a Lake Worth ex-convict became a national prisoner rights advocate
Posted: 7:00 a.m. Friday, Dec. 9, 2016
Once a year, Paul Wright leaves his offices in Lake Worth and heads to a classroom at Yale University to talk about prison law. He’s a national authority, yet he’s not a lawyer.
He’s the founder, editor and publisher of Prison Legal News, a national trade publication for people behind bars, their families and their lawyers. He began it in 1990 when he was in prison himself — for murder.
Back in 1982, Wright’s future had been bright. He graduated Lake Worth High in a speedy three years. The young man set his sights on a career in law enforcement and eventually became a military police officer stationed in Washington.
But the pay wasn’t great and in a rash moment he decided it’d be quick money to rob a drug dealer.
The drug dealer pulled a gun and Wright fired his.
The worst phone call in his life soon followed, when he had to dial up his parents to tell them he was sitting in jail charged with killing a man. “Your son’s a cop,” Wright recalled. “You don’t expect him to be calling from jail.”
He was sentenced to 25 years.
Who knows how it would have turned out if not for a box of cereal.
“I’d been inside about two years, a guard dumped a box of Cap’n Crunch on the floor of my cell. I’m making like $50 a month in the kitchen. The box is 10 percent of your salary,” Wright recalled. He was outraged. “That sent me to the law library.”
It turns out, he didn’t have a lot of options. “I was pretty much screwed. But that’s what got me asking, ‘What are prisoner rights and what can be done?’”
Finding his voice behind bars
Paul Wright, 51, grew up in Lake Worth. His dad, Rollin Wright, was a U.S. postal worker and along with Paul’s mom Zuraya ran the Aztec Stamp and Coin shop downtown until it closed in the early 2000s. They subscribed to their hometown paper, The Palm Beach Post. Wright figures he started reading it when he was in sixth grade. Both parents and son landed in its feature pages for their hobbies.
But newspapering wasn’t in Paul Wright’s plan. Nor was being prisoner No. 930783 at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington state.
“In some respects, I was fortunate. I’ve never been beaten, never been raped or stabbed. But I’ve seen it happen to others,” Wright said.
When he first saw it happen, a prisoner beaten by guards, Wright alerted the media – and was ignored. If they weren’t going to write it up, he decided he would — with a typewriter, some 8 ½ x 11 paper and a volunteer to run off copies at Kinkos.
Co-founded with fellow prisoner Ed Mead, the first Prison Legal News issue ran 10 pages and contained more than 20 articles, including an explainer of a court ruling that eased a path to inmates’ legal research, and another that rallied readers to come together in a class action suit over how parole hearings were conducted. A convicted rapist penned a poem titled The Terror. And at the top corner of page 7: A letter from the editors.
“Welcome to the first issue of Prisoners’ Legal News.” (The title later got an edit.)
Don’t want to be on the mailing list? “Write to our outside address and say so.” Wright’s dad, with his postal experience, agreed to be the mail clerk.
They asked readers to help them build a long-term agenda – things to fight for, perhaps the right to vote. “By working to extend democracy to prisoners we can change from being mere criminals to the defenders of democracy.”
The founders eventually parted ways – once released, the terms of Mead’s parole barred him from associating with felons like Wright. His appeal on the matter failed and Wright was left to carry on with a cadre of other confined contributors.
“I never really thought about writing until I went to prison,” said Wright, who likes to note that his degree in Soviet History became obsolete when the Soviet Union collapsed three years after he got it. “Like most Americans, I didn’t think I had a lot to say.”
Not only did he find his voice behind bars, he was the voice for others, said David C. Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. Fathi was working for another advocacy organization in Washington when he met Wright.
“He took it upon himself to help prisoners,” Fathi said. “Paul put himself at significant risk of retaliation to stand up for fellow prisoners. His courage is astounding.”
Standing up has sometimes meant exposing the system and its flaws in print.
“We’ve broken a lot of stories,” Wright said.
Creative thinker, strategist
A favorite example: In 1994, Prison Legal News readers learned that in his run for office, then-Washington Congressman Jack Metcalf used prison telemarketers to conduct a phony poll that painted his opponent as soft on crime. “He was using convicted rapists and child molesters to do this for him,” Wright said.
The congressman wasn’t alone. PLN, as it is sometimes called, also has outed Nintendo, Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft for tapping prison labor at one time or another.
The magazine exposed price gouging in the lucrative prison phone industry. Beginning in 1992, the magazine revealed how prison phone company rates took a financial toll on the families of those incarcerated. The stories were influential in prompting federal rate caps and other reforms in 2013 and 2015.
At other times, standing up meant filing a lawsuit.
A lot of that work is done through the non-profit organization created to publish PLN and advocate on other fronts, the Human Rights Defense Center, with Wright as its executive director.
“Deaf prisoners get interpreters because of a lawsuit I filed,” he said.
And the only lawsuit to successfully challenge those phone company practices was filed by Wright’s ex-wife, a HRDC board member, and his mother in Seattle in 2000. Notes Wright: “It settled in 2013 for $46 million.”
And sometimes, he took another route altogether.
“Paul is one of the most creative thinkers and strategists,” the ACLU’s Fathi said, recalling the time when Wright foiled his prison guards using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The guards at Clallam Bay Corrections Center were beating prisoners, said Wright.
“No one would do anything about that, but then one day guards went around with sticks and were destroying the nests and eggs of birds in the eaves of the prison,” Wright said. The birds, however, were a protected species. “So I complained to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and they were at the prison within two days telling the staff they would be arrested if they destroyed any nests or harmed any birds. No such luck on the prisoner beatings.”
For his efforts, Wright said he was retaliated against “on pretty much every level” for the bulk of the time he was in prison.
“I filed four retaliation lawsuits and only won one of them so I figured it goes with the territory…I was subjected to retaliatory transfers, placed in segregation, denied visits with my family, subjected to bogus write-ups, etc. And that is kind of how I got to be good at litigation, especially around First Amendment and discipline hearing issues.”
He found his life’s work
His career in law enforcement was forever derailed, but Wright had found a calling.
That calling incidentally fanned his love life as well. One of his subscribers was on the outside and wanted to write a book. She came to visit Wright. The two eventually married and had two boys courtesy of conjugal visits.
His oldest son, Carl, was 10 days old when he first set eyes on dad. His second son, Felix, came for a visit earlier – day 4.
Retelling this information, Wright ticks off numbers to attest that his family wasn’t alone. “Eighty percent of prisoners in this country are also a parent. That’s several million kids.”
Wright got out in 2003, after serving 17 years of his sentence. He could’ve given up advocacy and writing.
His cousin had an ‘in’ at General Motors selling cars to dealerships. Another relative was an investment banker, who said, “You know Paul, you need to get a real job,” Wright recalled.
Wright wasn’t interested. He’d found the job. He just didn’t know if he could earn a living.
“My target audience is among the poorest in the nation and in some areas the least literate,” said Wright.
But his potential audience has done nothing but multiply. In 1990, the number of people in jail, state or federal prison hit 1 million. On the eve of Wright’s release, the number had surpassed 2 million.
And fear that he could not make a go of a bare bones magazine printed on gray newsprint with nary a photograph proved unfounded.
The magazine’s home base has moved around a bit from a cell in Washington with a P.O. box in Lake Worth, to a home in Vermont and back to Lake Worth in 2013 after Wright’s divorce from both his wife and northern winters. (His father died in 2012, but his mother still lives here.)
Not only does the magazine support Wright full time, its payroll now boasts 15 full-time employees, 13 of whom work out of offices on Lucerne Avenue.
Wright and his staff have produced 306 issues and counting - 26 years of monthly magazines.
PLN regularly tops 70 pages. They print and mail some 12,000 copies to subscribers who then pass it around. The readership is estimated at 70,000 – about 65 percent of whom live in federal or state prisons. (Subscribe from the inside? Your rate is $30 a year. A lawyer or other professional or institution? That will be $90.)
Another 120,000 to 150,000 folks read PLN online each month.
“By the mid-2000s our subscribers pretty much mirrored prison populations,” he said. States with more prisoners are states with more subscribers. But while PLN has thrived, others publications folded. Where once, each state had a publication or two - or six in California – only PLN is left.
“Pretty much we’re it, which I think is pretty sad. I think having a monopoly is pretty sad.”
Still fighting state of Florida
Tom Julin, a Miami attorney whose specialty is first amendment rights, calls Wright’s work incredible.
“His organization is really the only organization in the country that tries to make sure prisoners have the kind of information he gets to them,” said Julin. “He’s fought battle after battle across the country and won.”
By one count in the American Bar Association Journal, Wright and his team have fought prison and jail officials in at least 30 states who have tried to ban Prison Legal News. Their reasons are what lawyers including Julin like to call “spurious.”
The ACLU’s Fathi recalled, “In one case in which we represented PLN, the institution claimed the magazine had to be excluded because it’s held together with staples.” The staples, the argument went, were problematic. “We pointed out that the jail sold legal pads that also had staples.”
PLN and its lawyers have obtained consent decrees in 10 states that prevent prison officials from failing to deliver the newsletter to inmate subscribers, the Journal reported.
The one case it continues to fight? The one in its home state, where Florida’s Department of Corrections refuses to deliver PLN to subscribers on the inside.
It is a case that dates back to 2003, when corrections authorities put an end to a history of inmates receiving the magazine in the mail. They argued that PLN’s ads for pen pals, three-way calling services and postage stamps posed a security threat. The DOC then relented in 2005, telling a judge it would cease censoring based on ad content, only to halt delivery again.
The case is now awaiting a ruling from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and has attracted the attention of former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement, a high profile attorney.
“That tells you about the importance of the issue in the case that Clement would take it,” said Julin, whose former firm attempted to file a friend of the court brief in the case. “Clement is hugely in demand. That’s a real signal that it’s a Supreme Court-worthy case.”
Wright isn’t measuring his success by court rulings.
In fact, when he looks at the landscape as a whole for prisoners and prison rights the picture looks bleaker than the day he went in.
“Brutality and beatings remain our biggest subjects. Medical and mental health care takes up more than 50 percent of our coverage. Every three years for the past 15 years or so, it’s time for a story about prisoners being raped by guards. There’s the notion it’s just a few bad apples, but when you come to the conclusion the whole orchard is rotten? Then there’s child support. It’s one thing to lock up criminals, it’s another thing to lock up someone whose crime is not paying.”
Still, Wright remains proud of the work.
He counts the changes in prison phone rate rules as one of PLN’s biggest accomplishments.
“One of our goals is making sure we’re relevant to our readers and their lives.”
Said Julin: “Most people who leave prison don’t look back. He’s remembered all those left behind and really tried to improve their fate. It’s so important for their mental health to know someone still cares for them and is looking out for them.”