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From the Editor

by Paul Wright

Prison Legal News published its first issue in May 1990. The month before that, Washington became the first state in the nation to enact a civil commitment process for sex offenders and to create a sex offender registry. Those laws were passed shortly after a mentally ill sex offender named Earl Kenneth Shriner kidnapped, raped and mutilated an eight-year-old boy in Tacoma, and Gene Raymond Kane, a sex offender on work release in Seattle, kidnapped, raped and killed a woman named Diane Ballasiotes. Diane’s mother, Ida Ballasiotes, became a victims’ rights advocate who was later elected to the state legislature, where she headed the misnamed House Corrections Committee. We reported all this at the time in PLN, and almost 30 years later we have seen sex offender registries spread nationally, with civil commitment laws being enacted by almost half the states.

All the critiques we made in the 1990s when these statutes were first picking up steam have pretty much been borne out. We have repeatedly noted that civil commitment for the purported purpose of providing sex offender treatment has been a giant lie perpetrated by the government and willingly believed by the judiciary. After all, if treatment were the real goal, then why not provide it to sex offenders while they are serving their prison sentences?

In a number of states, hundreds of sex offenders have been civilly committed and not a single one has been “treated” to the point of being released. The only way they leave their prison-like treatment facilities is in a body bag.

The indefinite civil confinement of sex offenders after they have served their sentences has been fueled by media sensationalism and government lies rather than independent, evidence-based studies. Statistically, the prisoners with the lowest recidivism rates are murderers and sex offenders. Evidence also indicates that many sex offenders do in fact benefit from treatment. Almost 30 years after Washington first enacted civil commitment and registry laws, there is no proof that such practices actually enhance public safety or reduce sex crimes. Rather, they have created a multi-billion dollar a year boondoggle spent caging sex offenders who have served their sentences and tracking over 800,000 more through registries.

Not to be outdone, states have created registries for drug offenders, murderers, alleged child abusers and many other people the government doesn’t like. Of course, we do not even know how many people are killed by the police each year, much less have a registry for killer cops. On any given day, thousands of sex offenders are imprisoned for not being properly “registered” – a crime that did not exist three decades ago. As the faltering discussion on mass incarceration sputters along, the fact that our government has created new crimes out of whole cloth and then caged tens of thousands of people a year for violating them is largely ignored when the people affected are sex offenders.

On December 19, 2018, the Human Rights Defense Center, PLN’s parent organization, filed a reply brief in our certiorari petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision upholding the Florida DOC’s statewide ban on Prison Legal News – a ban that has been in place for almost a decade. [See: PLN, Dec. 2018, p.12]. We should know by the end of January if the Court has granted review.

The saddest duty I have as the editor of PLN is to report the passing of our friends and allies. And the longer we publish, the longer that list grows. On November 24, 2018, Ray Hill died at the age of 78. Well known in Texas as a tireless advocate for gay rights and prisoners’ rights, and the creator and host of The Prison Show on radio station KPFT in Houston, Ray was one of PLN’s earliest subscribers and supporters, and we corresponded while I was in prison. He served a little over four years in the 1970s for burglary, an experience that turned him into a prisoners’ rights activist for the rest of his life. Ray was also gay, and organized extensively around LGBTQ issues long before it was popular to do so. He also organized protests against police misconduct and brutality.

Ray was the plaintiff in City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987), a U.S. Supreme Court case that held a Houston ordinance making it a crime to interrupt a police officer during the performance of their duties was unconstitutional, as it violated free speech rights. Ray filed and won at least four other civil rights suits against the City of Houston, including challenging laws that forced citizens to identify themselves to the police and banned people from blocking sidewalks. For decades, when Harris County led the nation in executions, Ray witnessed dozens of lethal injections. “The Ferryman and I, we’re old friends,” he said.

Ray had a great sense of humor and was tireless in his advocacy. One of my favorite quotes was when Ray said, and I am paraphrasing, “If you don’t want a pinko, commie fag doing your prisoner rights advocacy in Texas, find someone else to do it for you.” Ray’s last wishes were to be cremated and his ashes spread at his family’s cemetery, with his gravestone bearing his name, dates of birth and death, and the citation to his Supreme Court case. Ray will be sorely missed. A number of documentaries about his interesting and meaningful life are being finalized, so we have not heard the last of Ray Hill.

It is not too late to donate to HRDC’s annual fundraiser. If you believe in a free and independent press, this is your chance to support it and ensure we can continue to report criminal justice-related news in a timely, accurate manner. Likewise if you think our advocacy on behalf of prisoners, their families and people negatively impacted by the American police state deserves support, and, more importantly, your support! The need is great and every single donation makes a difference. Each dollar you give to HRDC will help further the cause of progressive criminal justice reform more than any other donation you could make.

We wish our readers all the best in the New Year. Enjoy this issue of PLN, and please encourage others to subscribe and support our work.