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Obituary: Rick Anderson, 1941-2018

by Paul Wright

On Christmas Eve 2018, PLN contributing writer Rick Anderson died of congestive heart failure at his daughter’s home. Rick was a long-time journalist. He grew up in Hoquiam, Washington and went to work as a copy boy at the Post-Intelligencer in Seattle. That started his career in journalism; he would go on to write for The Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Weekly and many other publications, including, yes, Prison Legal News.

Rick was a prolific reporter who wrote thousands of articles and several books over the course of nearly five decades. His stock in trade became stories about poor people, the underclass and underdogs, often involving crime and the police. Rick’s death was greeted with sadness by the many journalists and writers who knew him over the years. The Seattle Times and Crosscut both published eloquent eulogies for Rick that I won’t repeat here.

Many readers have read Rick’s articles in PLN over the years. Whenever we had a complex story involving tens of thousands of pages of documents and complex narratives, I immediately thought “This is a story for Rick.” But more importantly than just writing articles for PLN, if it hadn’t been for Rick Anderson, Prison Legal News might not exist today. Rick was my inspiration to become a journalist; he was one of PLN’s very first subscribers and supporters in 1990 when we first began publishing.

I entered the Washington state prison system in 1987. I was 21 years old and had just been convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years and 4 months in prison. At that point in my life the only jobs I had held were as a soldier in the U.S. Army, teaching English as a second language and frying chickens in a fast food restaurant. I had never written anything for publication and, like a lot of people, didn’t think I had anything to say that anyone else wanted to hear.

Prison was surprising on many levels, and in some respects the brutality and dehumanization seemed to be a continuation of what I saw in the military but with a little more personal freedom. For the duration of the 17 years I was incarcerated, my father bought me a subscription to The Seattle Times. Rick was one of their regular columnists, writing a column two or three times a week. He often touched on or wrote about crime and criminal justice issues, and what was extremely rare back then (and still today), he wasn’t just a shill for the police state. He was actually skeptical of the police and prisoncrats

I contacted Rick for the first time in 1988 about prison events, and was very surprised when he actually wrote about it in his column! Someone was interested in what I had to say! Ironically for a journalist, Rick was not much of a letter writer. For the many years I was in prison our correspondence was mostly one-sided: I sent him letters and he often picked them up in print where I read about them. But the validation that Rick provided was that someone outside of prison actually cared about what was happening on the inside – not just to me but to all the other people locked in cages. That encouraged me to contact more people, including other journalists. When my first letter to the editor was published by Anarchy magazine, I thought perhaps I could start writing and cut out the middleman.

In 1991, I wrote an article in PLN about guards beating prisoners at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, where I was held at the time. I also complained about the beatings to the governor’s office, the FBI, the media and, of course, the Department of Corrections – none of whom responded. Dan Pacholke, then the captain at CBCC who would later become secretary of the Washington DOC, responded by infracting me for “lying about staff” because I wrote about the beatings I personally witnessed. Apparently I couldn’t believe my “lyin’ eyes.” I was sentenced to 30 days in solitary confinement and 30 days loss of good time for duly reporting on the abuse I had seen. I sent Rick copies of the infraction reports.

No one was too interested in the beatings. But punishing me for writing about them caught Rick’s attention and made the front page of the local news section under his byline. That article is now posted on PLN’s website, along with a follow-up story on racism and brutality at Clallam Bay. After those articles ran in The Seattle Times, the beatings at the prison actually slowed down for a while.

Once I was released I finally met Rick in person around 2004 or 2005, and we remained in regular contact. He wrote to me via email, but never long messages. I read his articles and columns in various publications on a regular basis; like most of his fans, I appreciated his writing style and eloquence. Rick’s passion for justice infected me and made me think that informing the public could be a vehicle for social change for the better. He inspired me in 1988, and 31 years later I still share his vision. When I told Rick he was my inspiration to become a journalist, he laughed and told me nothing good was going to come of it and I should try to get a decent job while I still could.

Rick was writing pretty much until he died and we will publish his remaining articles in PLN shortly. His legacy will be not only the thousands of articles he wrote over the past five decades of his life for a variety of publications, but also his role in the existence of Prison Legal News. In 1988, Rick received a letter from an unknown prisoner and thought he had something valid to say. And now here we are. 


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