Rollin died on December 10, 2012 at the Palm Beach County Hospice in West Palm Beach, Florida from complications related to kidney cancer. He was 86 years old.
When Ed Mead and I started Prison Legal News in 1990, we were both incarcerated in different maximum-security prisons in Washington state. We needed someone who could track our donations and pay the bills to publish and mail what was, at that time, a hand-typed ten-page newsletter. Our initial volunteer proved to be unreliable and so did the next one. As Ed noted in the August 1990 PLN editorial, “The sharp eyed reader will have noticed our new return address for the newsletter. This is the 3rd new address in four issues, and it isn’t even in Washington state. Paul’s dad in Florida has agreed to be our outside publisher until such time as we are able to build a core of people willing to do the job here in the Northwest.”
In July 1990 I asked my dad if he would handle PLN’s mail on a temporary basis until we found someone reliable who could do so in Washington, which I did not think would take more than a few months. He readily agreed, and a few months turned into six years. He initially kept track of donations on the back of an envelope. When he went through three envelopes he thought we might be around for a while, so he bought some ledger books.
My father would have never called himself an activist or a revolutionary or a radical. He was born in Michigan in 1926 and in his senior year of high school was drafted into the Navy, where he spent the remainder of World War II guarding coal ships on the Great Lakes. Following his discharge at the end of the war, he rode the railroads around the country for two years and saw the United States before returning to Michigan, where he worked in various factories. After being laid off several times he decided that government employment was steadier, if lower paying, and went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in Florida, eventually retiring after 30 years.
At the time he agreed to be PLN’s publisher, we had around 80 subscribers and a budget of $50 per month. We steadily grew after that. When PLN formed a non-profit corporation in 1991, my father was one of the founding board members; he remained on the board of directors until his death. He knew nothing about publishing or about prisoners’ rights, but he had common sense, was honest and knew a lot about postal regulations, which is what propelled us to get our non-profit mailing status in order to reduce our postage costs.
By the time PLN hired its first paid staff member in 1996 to handle our office operations, our subscriber list had grown to over 1,200, which resulted in a major time commitment. And it was not just time but also money. The cost of office supplies, forwarding mail to me in prison, and phone calls when I called collect to ask about PLN-related matters were all expenses my father paid out of pocket and refused reimbursement. He said that was his contribution to the struggle, and the least he could do.
He actually did a lot more. During the 17 years I was incarcerated I could always count on my parents for their support. Whenever I was being placed in the hole for some excuse or other, my father would call prison officials and ask them why I was in seg. He would then call each day until I was out of seg. When the Washington DOC tried to transfer me out of state and could not find a state to accept me, he and my mother called and met with prison officials to let them know they did not want me to be transferred from Washington. Despite the considerable distance and expense, my parents visited me at least once a year, sometimes twice, going from Florida to whatever remote prison in Washington where I was held at the time.
My father did not just advocate for me as his son. He advocated for all prisoners as a class, and also for other individual prisoners. In the course of publishing PLN he corresponded with many of our subscribers and became friends with quite a few of them.
He saved many of the letters he received from incarcerated correspondents, especially those on death row.
As I write this editorial on Christmas day, I have spent the past week trying to organize his files and, in doing so, am finding the affidavits he provided in PLN lawsuits in our early years, letters he wrote to various parole and clemency boards on behalf of his friends, letters prisoners sent him, his ACLU membership card (he joined after I went to prison), and letters from prison officials concerning me and PLN. For someone who never considered himself an activist, he did more than many self-proclaimed activists have done.
My father had a lot of good qualities – far more than I will ever have. In the 47 years I knew him, I never heard him say anything bad or negative about anyone. People who knew him longer than I have agreed on this. He was generous, caring and loving, and most importantly he never gave up on me or stopped helping and loving me from the day I was born until the day he died. I am glad that not only did he live to see me get out of prison, but that we were able to enjoy eight Christmases together after my release, even if we missed this last one.
In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Rollin Wright can be sent to the Human Rights Defense Center, P.O. Box 2420, Brattleboro, VT 05303. Donations can also be made online at www.prisonlegalnews.org, or by phone at (802) 257-1342. Had it not been for my father’s volunteer help and support between 1990 and 1996, PLN would not exist today. This issue, which is dedicated to Rollin, is being mailed a bit late due to his death; we will be back on our regular publishing schedule next month.
We wish our readers all the best in the New Year and hope it is better than the last.
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login