Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

The History of Prison Legal News

In May, 1990, the first issue of Prisoners' Legal News (PLN) was published. It was hand typed, photocopied and ten pages long. The first issue was mailed to 75 potential subscribers. Its budget was $50. The first 3 issues were banned in all Washington prisons, the first 18 in all Texas prisons. Since then we have published 120 consecutive issues, grown to offset printing of 32 page issues and now have around 3,200 subscribers in all 50 states as well as in 23 countries. This is how it happened.

In 1987 I entered the Washington state prison system with a 304 month prison sentence. In 1988 I met Ed Mead, a political prisoner and veteran prison activist, at the Washington State Reformatory (WSR) in Monroe, Washington. Ed had been imprisoned since 1976. In that period he had been involved in organizing and litigating around prison conditions and issues. He had also started and published several newsletters, including The Chili Factor, The Red Dragon, and The Abolitionist. By late 1998 Ed and I were jointly involved in class action prison conditions litigation and other political work. Ed's last newsletter, The Abolitionist, had fallen apart over differences he had with the editorial board.

As the 1980s ended it became readily apparent that collectively prisoners were in a downhill spiral. We were suffering serious setbacks on the legislative, political, judicial and. media fronts. Prisoners and their families were the people most affected by criminal justice policies, but we were also the ones almost entirely absent from the debate. There was also a lack of political conciousness and awareness among prisoners and widespread ignorance about the realities of the prison system among those not incarcerated.

Ed and I decided to republish The Red Dragon as a means of raising political consciousness among social prisoners in the U.S. We planned to model the new Red Dragon on the old one: a 50-60 page, Marxist quarterly magazine. We eventually put together a draft copy, but it was never printed for distribution. The main reason was the lack of political and financial support on the outside. We lacked the money to print a big quarterly magazine, and we were unable to find volunteers outside prison willing to commit the time involved in laying out, printing and mailing a big magazine. In 1989 I was also subjected to a retaliatory transfer to the Penitentiary at Walla Walla, due to success in the WSR overcrowding litigation. Prison officials also wanted to ensure that the Red Dragon never got published. The transfer meant that Ed and I were relegated to communicating by heavily censored mail.

We scaled back our ambitions and instead decided to publish a small, monthly newsletter focusing on prison issues in Washington. If the support was there it would grow. Originally named Prisoners' Legal News we set out with the goal of publishing real, timely news that activist prisoners could use.

With the social movements that had traditionally supported the prison movement in this country at a low ebb (i.e., civil rights, women's liberation and anti-war movements), we saw PLN's objective as one that would emphasize prisoner organizing and self reliance. Like previous political journalists who had continued publishing during the dark times of the 1920s and 1950s, we saw PLN's role as being similar. From the outset PLN has striven to be an organizing tool as much as we are information source. When we started we had no idea that things would get as bad as they have gotten.

In 1990 I was transferred to the Clallam Pay Corrections Center, a then new Washington prison. In May, 1990 the first issue of PLN appeared. Ed and I each typed up five pages of PLN in our respective cells. Columns were carefully laid out with blue pencils and graphics applied with a glue stick. We sent the proof copy to Richard Mote, a volunteer in Seattle, who copied and mailed it. Ed contributed PLN's start up budget of $50.

The first three issues of PLN were banned in all Washington prisons on spurious grounds. Ed was infracted by WSR officials for allegedly violating copyright laws for writing law articles. Officials at Clallam Bay ransacked my cell and confiscated my writing materials, background information and anything that was PLN related. Eventually Ed's infraction was dismissed and I received my materials back. Just as we were on the verge of filing a civil rights lawsuit challenging the censorship of PLN, the Washington DOC capitulated and allowed PLN into its prisons. Jim Blodgett, then the warden at the Penitentiary in Walla Walla, told me that PLN would never last because its politics were "harmless and outmoded," and prisoners were too young and immature to be influenced by our ideas. The reprisals had been fully expected, given prison officials' historic hostility to the concept of free speech.

The biggest disaster in PLN's history then struck. Richard Mote turned out to be mentally unstable. He refused to print and mail PLN's second issue because he took offense to an article by Ed calling for an end to the ostracization of sex offenders. Mote took off with all of PLN's money that contributors had sent, about $50, the master copy of the second issue and our mailing list. For several weeks it looked like there would be no second issue of PLN. Fortunately, we located a second volunteer, Janie Pulsifer, who was willing to print and mail PLN. Ed and I sent Janie a second copy of that issue of PLN which she copied and mailed. We were back on track.

The Presses Keep Rolling
Ed's partner, Carey Catherine, had agreed to handle PLN's finances and accounting, such as they were, after Mote jumped ship. This was short-lived, because by August, 1990, she was preparing to go to China to study. The only person we knew who had a post office box who might he able to handle PLN's mail, mainly to process donations, was my father, Rollin Wright.

He lives in Florida but generously agreed to handle PLN's mail for what Ed and I thought would be a few months at most, until we found someone in Seattle to do it.

PLN's support and circulation slowly began to grow. In January, 1991, PLN switched to desk top publishing. Ed and I would send our typed articles to Judy Bass and Carrie Roth, who would retype them and lay them out. Ed and I would then proof each issue before it was printed and mailed. In 1991 PLN also obtained 501(c)(3) status from the IRS in order for us to be able to use lower postage rates. PLN's circulation had stabilized at around 300 subscribers. We purposely did not seek further growth at that point because we did not have the infrastructure to sustain it. Once we had non profit status and postal permits from the post office we were ready to grow.

In the summer of 1992 we did our first sample mailing to prison law libraries. Since PLN's reader base had grown, and changed, we decided to reflect this change by renaming the magazine Prison Legal News, PLN wasn't just for prisoners anymore. PLN was now being photocopied and mailed each month by a group of volunteers in Seattle.

When PLN started out in 1990 Ed and I had decided PLN would be a magazine of struggle, whether in the courts or elsewhere, and everything would be chronicled. At a time when the prisoner movement was overcome by defeatism and demoralization we thought it important to report the struggles and the victories as they occurred, to let activists know theirs was not a solitary struggle.

A mainstay of PLN's coverage from the beginning is the issue of prison slave labor. This is where the interests of prisoners and free world workers intersect at their most obvious. If people outside prison didn't think criminal justice policies affect them, PLN would make prisons relevant by showing how prison slave labor took their jobs and undermined their wages. This coverage was helped by the fact that Washington was, and remains, a national leader in the exploitation of prison slave labor by private business. PLN has broken stories, later picked up by the national media, on how corporations like Boeing, Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Planet Hollywood and U.S. congressman Jack Metcalf have all used prison slave labor to advance their interests. These stories were all picked up by other media, increasing PLN's exposure.

In June, 1992, I was transferred back to WSR where Ed and I could collaborate on PLN in person for the first time since the magazine started. In 1991 I had been infracted by Clallam Bay prison officials for reporting in PLN the racist beatings of prisoners by gangs of white guards. Unable to generate attention for the beatings themselves, my punishment for reporting the attacks generated front page news in The Seattle Times. Eventually the disciplinary charges were dropped, but not until after I had spent a month in a control unit for reporting the abuses. The presses kept rolling.

PLN Becomes A Magazine
On PLN's third anniversary in May, 1993, we made the big leap. We switched to offset printing instead of photocopying and permanently expanded our size to 16 pages. PLN was no longer a newsletter, we were now a magazine. PLN had 600 subscribers.

In October, 1993, Ed was finally paroled after spending 18 years in prison. The state parole board, no doubt unhappy at PLN's critical coverage of their activities, imposed a "no contact" order on Ed. This meant Ed could have no contact, by mail or phone, with me or any other felon. The parole board made it very clear that this was for the purpose of preventing Ed's involvement with PLN. If Ed were involved in publishing PLN in anyway he would be thrown hack in prison, very probably for the rest of his life.

The ACLU of Washington filed suit on our behalf to challenge the rule as violating Ed's right to free speech as well as my own. In an unpublished ruling, judge Robert Bryan in Tacoma dismissed our lawsuit, holding that it was permissible for the state to imprison someone for publishing a magazine while they were on parole. The Ninth circuit court of appeals would eventually dismiss our suit as moot when, after three years on state parole, Ed was finally discharged from the parole board's custody. In the meantime, Ed got on with his life and has moved to California, where he is successfully employed in the computer industry.

In early 1994 Dan Pens became PLN's new co-editor, replacing Ed. Dan had been a PLN supporter from the beginning, contributing articles, typing and maintaining PLN's mailing list on a program he custom designed for PLN. (This was at a time when Washington prisoners could have computers in their cells.) PLN also switched to an East coast printer that offered significant savings over Seattle printers. This allowed PLN to expand to 20 pages. Within the year we were no longer being mailed by volunteers; our printer did the mailing as well.

In January, 1996, PLN hired its first staff person, Sandy Judd. PLN's needs and circulation had grown to the point that volunteers were simply unable to do all the work that needed to be done. With some 1,600 subscribers, data entry, lay out, accounting and other tasks all required full time attention. Dan had been moved to a different prison in the summer of 1995 and could no longer maintain the mailing list as he had before. For security reasons, we had not been comfortable with the idea of having the mailing list where prison officials could get it, but it had to be done in order to finish the computer program. The downside is that data entry takes a lot of time. By late 1997 Fred Markham was PLN's overworked and underpaid office slave. Earlier this year we added Linda Novenski as our second staff person to help deal with the ever increasing work load.

This issue marks PLN's tenth year and 120th issue of publishing. We have around 3,200 subscribers in all 50 states.

PLN goes into every medium and maximum security prison in the U.S. and many of the minimum security ones as well. PLN's subscribers include prisoners, judges, lawyers, journalists, academics, prison and jail officials, activists and concerned citizens. The bulk of each issue of PLN is still written by prisoners. In 1999, the Washington DOC banned correspondence between prisoners. The resulting breakdown in communication made coordinating PLN difficult, to say the least, between Dan and me. Dan stepped down as co-editor but continues to contribute articles. In addition to Dan and me, over the years we have added a number of contributing writers across the country who contribute articles and reporting to PLN. This includes, in no particular order: Willie Wisely, Alex Friedman, James Quigley, Matt Clarke, Mark Wilson, Julia Lutsky, Daniel Burton-Rose, Ronald Young, Mark Cook, Rick Card, Bob Williams, and others. We have three quarterly columns, by attorney John Midgley and political prisoners Linda Evans, Marilyn Buck and Mumia Abu-Jamal. For stories that require investigative follow-up PLN has been able to count on excellent investigative reports, like Ken Silverstein, Jennifer Vogel, Tara Herivel, Daniel Burton-Rose and others. This has helped PLN provide a wider spectrum of voices, deeper and better coverage of criminal justice issues and helped us expand in size without compromising our quality.

In 1998 Common Courage Press published our first book, The Celling of America: An Inside Look at the U.S. Prison Industry. Edited by Daniel Burton Rose, Dan Pens and me, the book is a PLN anthology. The book lays out in one place the reality and politics of the prison industrial complex. Now in its third printing, the book has received critical acclaim and helped boost PLN's profile. Since 1998 I have been doing a weekly radio program on KPFA's Flashpoints program called "This Week Behind Bars." The show airs on Fridays and consists of news reports from PLN about what is happening in American prisons and jails.

PLN remains unique in many respects. First, PLN is the only independent, uncensored nationally circulated magazine edited and produced largely by prisoners anywhere in the U.S., if not the world. It is also the longest lived, if not in history, at least in recent memory. Second, PLN is one of the few publications that offers a class based analysis of the criminal justice system. No other publication has the depth and breadth of coverage of detention facility litigation as well as news that PLN does.

To date, PLN has remained self reliant. Despite a lot of effort on our part, PLN has never been able to attract significant funding from foundations or similar sources. For the past ten years PLN has existed almost exclusively on donations sent by subscribers. In recent years advertising income has helped offset PLN's costs as well. Book sales have also helped contribute to PLN's continued existence. Until PLN had to hire a staff person we operated on a break-even basis. As late as 1995 we were giving away up to 48% of our subscriptions to prisoners who could not, or claimed they couldn't, afford to subscribe. With the expense of a staff person we had to dramatically limit the number of free subscriptions we provide. A free press doesn't come cheap.

Neither does free speech. From the very first issue to this day, PLN has been censored in prisons and jails across the country. In most cases we have been able to resolve censorship issues administratively. In cases where that was not possible, we filed suit and resolved the matter in court. The article following this article gives a rundown on PLN's litigation history. Whether as a reflection of the times or a comment on PLN's effectiveness, we are being faced with more attempts at censorship nationally than at anytime in the past ten years. PLN may well he the most censored publication in America.

PLN In the Next Century
A question I have been asked is whether PLN is "successful." Success is a relative term. When a French journalist asked Mao Tse-Tung in the 1960's if he thought the French Revolution in 1789 had been successful Mao reportedly replied "It's too soon to tell." So too with PLN. The prison and jail population in the U.S. has doubled to two million people just in the time we have been publishing. By any objective standard, prison conditions, overcrowding and brutality are now far worse than at any time in the past 25 years. Draconian laws criminalize more behavior, impose harsher punishment in worse conditions of confinement than at any time in modern world history. With 5 percent of the world's population the U.S. has 25% of the world's prisoners. The legal rights of American prisoners are diminishing daily under coordinated attack from conservative courts and reactionary politicians. The corporate media and politicians alike thrive on a daily diet of sensationalized crime and prisoner bashing, while prisons and jails consume ever increasing portions of the government budget, to the detriment of everything else.

PLN has duly chronicled each spiral in this downward cycle of repression and violence. We have provided a critique and analysis of the growth of the prison industrial complex and exposed the human rights abuses which are the daily reality of the American gulag at the turn of the century. In that sense, I believe PLN has been successful. Even if we didn't stop the evils of our time, at least we struggled against them and did the best we could under the circumstances. That we have managed to publish at all under these circumstances is a remarkable success. When I started PLN ten years ago I never thought I would be writing this retrospective ten years later in the same magazine.

But, not all is gloom and doom. PLN has helped stop some of the abuses that are legion in the American gulag. We have also borne witness to what is happening and duly documented it. Recent years have seen an increase in interest and support for prison issues and human rights in the United States. Many of PLN's critiques of prison slave labor and other issues have been picked up and adopted by labor groups and even some elements of the corporate media.

I believe that ultimately PLN's success will be measured by its usefulness to the prisoners, activists, journalists, lawyers and citizens who tried to make a difference for the better. We have tried our best to provide timely, accurate, useful information that people can use in their daily struggle for justice. PLN will also provide a useful, contemporaneous account of prison issues for later historians.

The main obstacles that PLN faces are those faced by all alternative media in the U.S.: underfunding and the corresponding inability to reach more people with our message. Absent relatively (for PLN) large scale funding from outside sources to do outreach work, this will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future. The other primary problems PLN faces are prisoner illiteracy (depending on the state, between 40 to 809 of the prisoner population is functionally illiterate), and political apathy. Despite that situation, PLN has survived and grown. The need that led to PLN's creation has only grown.

Corporate media coverage of prison and criminal justice issues tends to be abysmal. Most media coverage is little more than press release journalism. Input from prisoners or activists is rarely sought. Since its inception PLN has ensured that the voices of class conscious prisoners are heard. We are proud of the fact that over the years many stories originally broken or developed by PLN have been picked up by other news sources, including the corporate media. We are heartened by the fact that prisoners in other states are starting similar publications to deal with their local issues. This includes Florida Prison Legal Perspectives, Voices Behind the Walls and Southland Prison News, among others.

After a decade of publishing it has to he emphasized that PLN has always been very much a collective effort. Dan, Ed and I have been the editors, and the ones to hear the brunt of our captor's displeasure for speaking truth to power, but the reality is that PLN would never have been possible if it were not for the many volunteers and supporters who have so generously donated their time, energy, skills, labor, advice and money to PLN. The cause of prisoner and human rights has never been too popular in this country. In today's political climate it takes extraordinary courage and committment to support a project like PLN.

The volunteers, without whose support PLN would not exist today, include, in no particular order: Dan Axtell, Dan Tenenbaum, Rollin Wright, Zuraya Wright, Allan Parmelee, Janie Pulsifer, Jim Smith, Jim McMahon, Scott Dione, Cathy Wiley, Ellen Spertus, Sandy Judd, Fred Markham, Bill Withrup, Wesley Duran, Janie Pulsifer, the late Michael Misrok, Shannon Hall and many others.

The lawyers that have advised and represented PLN on matters as diverse as Internet law and censorship litigation over the years include, in no particular order: Bob Cumbow, Mickey Gendler, Bob Kaplan, Joe Bringman, Leonard Schroeter, Dan Manville, Rhonda Brownstein and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Washington ACLU, Alison Hardy, Marc Blackman, Frank Cuthbertson, Mike Kipling, Brian Barnard, Peter Schmidt, David Bowman and Sam Stiltner.

The organizations that have provided PLN with financial support over the years are: the Open Society Institute, Solidago Foundation, Resist, Southern Poverty Law Center, A Territory Resource, Sonya Staff Foundation and Youth Emergency Services.

Ultimately, the people who have contributed articles, donated money and subscribed are what have made PLN possible today. Without all these people contributing to PLN's collective effort, and there are far too many to name here, we would have met the fate of the vast majority of alternative publications: we would have folded within a year.

Going into the 21st century PLN will still be here, giving voice to the voiceless and providing the best news and analysis on prison and jail related issues around.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login