The country’s longest-running prison publication faces censorship
IN 1990, AT THE CLALLAM BAY CORRECTIONS CENTER in Washington State, Paul Wright and a fellow inmate began what is now the nation’s longest-running independent prisoner-rights publication—and perhaps the nation’s most censored news outlet—the Prison Legal News.
After seeing corrections officers assault inmates on more than one occasion, Wright, who is fifty-six and still the publisher of PLN, started “thinking prisoners and their families needed a voice in what passes for debate on criminal justice issues.” He typed up the first edition of PLN on a manual typewriter, and a volunteer had it copied and stapled together at a nearby Kinko’s. “We had three hundred dollars, and the plan was to see how long we could go,” Wright said. They’d hoped for six months. “Here we are, thirty-two years later.”
PLN is part of the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that Wright founded in 1990. The HRDC has sued prison systems in fifteen different states, from Oregon to Virginia, for censorship, alleging—successfully, in many cases—violation of First Amendment rights. (No prisons have claimed PLN’s articles are 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 claims the ban stems from PLN’s ads, which “not only make…prohibited services available to inmates but also appear along with articles about inmate phone scams, the role of Green Dot cards in prison gang extortion schemes, and the nationwide problem with smuggling contraband like drugs and cell phones into prisons,” Paul W. Walker, a spokesperson, told me in an email.
PLN is reliant on its advertisers, which include a career institute offering paralegal certification, a channel guide for TV viewing, a service offering “Sexy Photos Non-Nude/Nude,” and a request for prison poetry for an “upcoming daily devotional.”
“Banning these publications from reaching those who are in jail,” said Dan Marshall, the HRDC’s general counsel, “is an affront to the First Amendment, as well as counterproductive to the goals of security and rehabilitation.” Wright told me Florida prisons 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, though.
“If government employees can shut down and shut up anyone who criticizes them at no cost or risk to themselves,” Wright said, “why would anyone expect them not to?”
With a staff and readership that is almost entirely incarcerated, PLN seeks to fill a gap left by more mainstream criminal justice journalism. Recent headlines include: “Living and Dying on Rikers Island: The Latest Installment,” “Montana Renews CoreCivic Contract; Major Water and Sewage Problems Persist,” and “After Second Circuit Rules in His Favor, Connecticut Prisoner Required to Exercise in Full Restraints for Six Months Takes $100,000 Settlement.”
“Most of your writing that you see about criminal justice—not all of it—but a very high percentage of it is spoon-fed to the media by law enforcement agencies that know that they’ve got clickbait, that people will read,” said Derek Gilna, a longtime PLN reporter and a former Illinois state prosecutor. He spent five years in federal prison on a bank fraud conviction before his release in 2012. The magazine, he added, “is an absolutely necessary resource for people to understand what goes on in prison, in county jails, and in the criminal justice world.”
Gilna, seventy-three, encountered PLN when he met a prisoner-reporter while incarcerated. The man was busy writing a book and asked Gilna if he could pick up his reporting for PLN. Gilna ended up writing twenty to thirty articles a month. Sourcing his stories was tough from a cell. “When you’re in prison, you have no access to research,” Gilna said. “I had friends on the outside. If I had something that really interested me and I wanted more information, they would send it to me.”
PLN has nine thousand paid subscribers in prisons—another vital source of revenue. But its issues are passed around in prisons, so its readership is likely much higher. “I would say there’s kind of two groups” of readers, said John Lash, who was a PLN reader during his nearly twenty-five years of incarceration in Georgia state prisons. “Any prisoner either wanting to advocate for his own case or who was interested in prisoners’ rights in general.” (Lash is now a doctoral candidate in conflict studies.)
Like many other newspaper publishers, Wright—a self-described Marxist-Leninist who has an unquenchable thirst for Diet Pepsi—worries about the cost of newsprint and ink. He’s coping with a 20 percent rise in printing costs over the past year, an ink shortage, and the devastating effects of covid-19—on staff, prisoners, and the Postal Service employees on whom he relies for publishing and distributing PLN.
Wright has no formal training as a journalist and didn’t set out to become one. He graduated high school in three years, joined the US Army and earned a bachelor’s 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 sits a print of a hammer and sickle taken by the late photographer Tina Modetti, a 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 cofounder, Ed Mead, was part of the revolutionary George Jackson Brigade, a far-left group that orchestrated a number of bombings and robberies. 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 over lunch in downtown Lake Worth, Wright disparages what he calls corporate media. “Historically the media’s been pretty servile to the whole American police state on every level,” he said. “If you do a search of articles reporting on prison slavery, if it’s happening in China, it’s a severe and gross human rights violation that needs to end immediately. Prison slavery in America, though, is [portrayed as] very sound public policy, and it needs to be encouraged.”
Wright estimates he spends up to seventy hours a week as PLN’s publisher and the executive director of the HRDC. Reflecting on spending most of his adult life fighting off censors and advocating for prisoners’ rights, Wright said, “The back issues have held up remarkably well. We’ve never had to retract an article.”
I asked him about the value of his life’s work. He paused, and then said: “Documenting the rise of the modern American police state and modern incarceration state as it was happening in real time.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify references to Paul Wright’s biography and accurately reflect the year the HRDC was founded.