From the Editor
by Paul Wright
Welcome to the first issue of PLN for 2016 as we enter our 26th year of continuous publishing. This month’s cover story about the rise of mass incarceration is something of a road map to how we got to where we are now. To put it into a broader context, when PLN started publishing in 1990 the U.S. had 1 million prisoners and it had taken 214 years to get to that first million. Then it took around ten years, to 2000, to double the number of people in prison to two million.
There is currently some talk about reducing the American prison population, yet no one is really talking about reducing it as fast as it grew. In the 1990s the U.S. was opening a new prison every two weeks for most of the decade, sometimes more. This played out at PLN, as we were adding those prisons to our database and then changing the addresses of our subscribers as they were moved into those new facilities. For all the talk of criminal justice reform, no one is talking about closing a prison every two weeks for the better part of a decade, which would just get us down to 1.5 million prisoners – or where we were in the mid 1990s.
Marie Gottschalk is one of the most incisive criminal justice analysts today, and her book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, like her prior book, The Prison and the Gallows, is must reading for anyone interested in understanding how the U.S. came to lead the world in mass incarceration. What is interesting are the people who object to referring to the U.S. as a police state. I think the first proof of a police state is the number of prisoners it has both in constant numbers and as a percentage of its population. By that standard the U.S. not only leads the world today but has eclipsed both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the height of communist power in the 1930s. Not only do the police kill with impunity, their level of impunity is such that they don’t even need to conceal their crimes. Historically most regimes have at least tried to shield their crimes from public view.
The big game changer in public attitudes about the police state has been the rise of portable digital cameras, video footage and social media, where images can be publicly disseminated without being shielded by the corporate media. It is fair to say the police have not become crueler or more brutal in the past 30 years; rather, the means of documenting their abuse has improved. Of course, this may be true of brutality committed outside of prison but for the brutality within prisons and jails it remains woefully undocumented. I was attending a prison conference in Virginia shortly after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and one of the speakers was a prison warden from New York. A member of the audience asked him what his first reaction was when he saw the photos of tortured Iraqi prisoners and he said, “my first reaction was who allowed the guards to have cameras inside the security perimeter of the prison.”
PLN is interested in disseminating images of abuse and corruption in prisons and jails. Such images, including video, can be emailed to email@example.com, and we will post them on our website and disseminate to wider media depending on interest. Prisons and jails are the least transparent of all American institutions and the ones in most need of understanding by the public with respect to what is being done in their name with their tax dollars. Pictures and multimedia can be viewed on PLN’s website at www.prisonlegalnews.org.
We recently celebrated our 25th anniversary in Seattle on November 9 and in New York City on December 1. John Midgley was the master of ceremonies for the Seattle event, and Meg Fidler MC’d the New York event. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou was our keynote speaker at both events. To date, John remains one of the few people to go to prison for the CIA’s torture of prisoners, for confirming to the media that the CIA was in fact torturing prisoners in its custody. He was prosecuted under the Espionage Act and served two years in federal prison. None of the actual torturers – or their political masters who ordered the torture – have been prosecuted, much less convicted. I sent John a subscription to PLN shortly after his arrival in prison and he began writing about his own prison experiences in a blog called Letters from Loretto. (He was imprisoned at the federal prison in Loretto, Pennsylvania.) Two years in the BOP convinced John of the need for prison and criminal justice reform. Both of our anniversary events were very successful with 50-60 attendees, and we are very grateful for our event sponsors who made it possible.
It is not too late donate to our annual fundraiser. If you have not yet made a donation, please do so. Every little bit helps and you can donate by mail, online or by phone. See the ad in this issue of PLN for more details.
As we enter the new year the big news is we are publishing two brand new books, or updated versions of prior PLN Publishing titles. One is the Prison Education Guide by Christopher Zoukis, a guidebook on how to obtain a distance education from behind bars, which updates the Prisoners’ Guerrilla Handbook on Correspondence Courses in the U.S. and Canada by Jon Marc Taylor. The second edition of The Habeas Citebook, by Brandon Sample, will also be published. We will announce their availability for shipping as soon as they are ready.
Enjoy this issue of PLN, and please encourage others to subscribe.
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