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Prison Legal News at 15

I know a little something about newspapers.

As a teenager, I worked on the staff of The Black Panther newspaper. By worked," I mean, I did whatever I was told to do; whatever was needed to help get the paper ready for printing. That meant writing articles, typing out others articles, justifying them, proofreading texts for errors, giving graphic arts to physically doing layout of the text or graphic on the page, to punching out headlines for articles.

Members of the BPP Ministry of Information did everything -- but actually print the paper. The Black Panther Party did this every week, for over a decade, and sold over 100,000 copies weekly!

That was no small feat.

But, neither is this.

That Prison Legal News has survived for 15 years is utterly remarkable. That it is written, edited, collated and prepared for publication by men and women who are themselves prisoners, is all the more remarkable.

It would be a Herculean feat all by itself -- and then we consider the content.

Articles, mostly written by jailhouse lawyers, on the maddening warp and woof of the law; written accurately, almost (but not quite!) dispassionately, on cases won and cases lost. It is the truest record of the reality of the proverbial prison industrial complex," not from the top of the heap" (as most law is written), but from the bottom of the pyramid. Consider this analogy: In Pharoahnic Egypt, the glories of Kings adorned the faces of the temples, and emblazoned the red faces of the pylons, and the bases of obelisks.

But, as with every Kingdom, this was history, often mixed liberally with myth. Indeed, it was often war propaganda, (kind of like the news" that led the modern American nation into the mad adventure in Iraq) or recitations of the royal line.

Meanwhile, in the dark, unsmoothed and usually unseen warrens of the temples, workers wrote accounts that were truer, uncensored glimpses of Egypt, not in the language of the priests and the nobles, but in the tongue of common people.

PLN is the underside of the pyramid, and this is the voice of the builder," the worker, the prisoner, who labors for freedom or justice while bearing the weight of the pyramid.

The reader can learn not only what's happening around the nation, but learn of events worldwide as well.

PLN has blazed a unique trail in its coverage of the legal aspects of life in the Prison Voyage of Nations.

PLN has also proven, by its coverage, the class and ideological bias of the corporate press.

Several years ago, the national media was inundated with reports of silly suits" -- cases brought by prisoners claiming that the denial of chunky peanut butter violated the Eighth Amendment's prescription on cruel and unusual punishment, for example.

Stories such as these ran on the news wires, were picked up by the so-called news shows, flipped to the talk show circuits, and probably pumped up the laugh tracks on Leno and Letterman.

Unfortunately, it also provided the impetus to prod Congress to pass the Prison Litigation Reform Act; an act of Congress based on lies.

It was in PLN that readers read the words of Chief Judge Jon Newman, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who gave an entirely different spin on the silly suits. He also noted that the claimed litigation explosion" was hardly that. Judge Newman also related how many pro se suits were common, in fact, instrumental in changing clearly unconstitutional prison conditions, ones that prison officials routinely ignored.

While there clearly were some silly suits," judges hardly needed an act of Congress to deal with them. Judges simply dismissed them.

PLN told the right story; the true story. If more folks subscribe to it, it might have been able to turn the tide.

But it's doing OK.

It's reporting the legal news of the nation's prisons and prisoners; state by state; joined by joint; case by case, it is a helluva job; but somebody's gotta do it.

Mumia Abu. Jamal is a columnist for PLN, and a jailhouse journalist and lawyer. His latest work is We Want Freedom: A Life and the Black Panther Party (Cambridge, MA. South End Press, 2004), which recently won the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title, 2005.

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