This issue marks the 27th anniversary of Prison Legal News and our parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center. When I first started publishing PLN from my prison cell in Clallam Bay, Washington in 1990, I didn’t think I would still be doing so 27 years later. We weren’t sure how long it would last but no one thought it would be this long.
In 1990 the U.S. imprisoned around a million people. By the end of the decade that number had doubled to 2 million and today hovers around the 2.3 million mark, give or take a few thousand. Among the drivers of mass incarceration has been the war on sex offenders. Sadly, PLN has had a front row seat for this unfolding debacle: a month before we began publishing, Washington became the first state to enact civil commitment for sex offenders and a sex offender registry. Three- and two-strike laws would come a few years later. As this issue’s cover story reports, sex offender regulations duly expanded and spread from there.
Today the government spends a huge amount of money – no one really knows how much but certainly in the millions of dollars – to track, register, prosecute, imprison and immiserate sex offenders. To use the example of sex offender registries, since they did not exist before 1990, the crime of failing to register did not exist – but it does today, and the cost of incarcerating sex offenders whose only crime is failure to register adds to the expense and scope of our criminal justice system.
No one can really say how many people are imprisoned on a given day for offenses related to sex offender registries, but it is one of the factors driving the increase in prison and jail populations. Despite the talk of wanting to reduce the number of prisoners, no one in a position of power is talking about limiting these laws or repealing them. Sex offender registries are a classic example of laws, and crimes, being created from whole cloth by legislatures which then proceed to enmesh hundreds of thousands of people in a cycle of incarceration, community supervision and state surveillance. There are more than 805,000 registered sex offenders in the U.S.
I would like to thank all the people over the past 27 years who have supported HRDC and PLN and helped us get to where we are today. This includes our volunteers, staff, subscribers, donors, board members, advertisers and many others. As the years have gone by the list of names has become far too long to recite individually. The bottom line is that we would not have been able to come as far as we have, and as long as we have, without the support of so many people across the country.
The first three issues of PLN were censored by prison officials in Washington State, then they capitulated as we were preparing to file suit over the ban. Jim Blodgett, the warden at the Washington State Penitentiary at the time, told me there was no need to censor PLN because prisoners were not interested in what we had to say and we would quickly fold. That was 27 years and 324 issues ago. We have since expanded into book distribution and publishing, litigation and advocacy work.
Speaking of long struggles, in this issue of PLN we report on the settlement in Prison Legal News v. Kane, our Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking information on how much money the federal Bureau of Prisons spends on litigation payouts. I filed the request in 2003 while I was still incarcerated and President Bush was in office. We eventually obtained most of the records I requested, about 12,000 pages, which are posted and summarized on our website, representing all payouts by the BOP in claims and lawsuits from 1996 to 2003.
Fourteen years, five motions for summary judgment and a successful appeal to the DC Circuit later, we were able to resolve the case for $420,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs. This appears to be the largest settlement in a FOIA suit against the BOP in the agency’s history. We filed a subsequent lawsuit seeking all litigation payouts from 2003 to the present, and that case remains pending. Our experience in Kane is also a testament to the lie of public transparency under the Obama administration, which continued to obstruct our FOIA request. We are thankful to the various attorneys and law firms that represented us in the case and eventually brought us to victory.
PLN continues to rely on your support to maintain the work we do and to grow and be able to do more. Your donations help and make a real difference; no amount is too large or too small. It is your financial support that allows us to take on projects like a 14-year FOIA battle against the federal government – fights that no one else is fighting, much less winning.
Thank you for your support and enjoy this issue of PLN.
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