Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

This month’s cover story reports on the long-familiar use of prison slave labor to perform dangerous, dirty work that few others in the U.S. are willing to do – and for slave wages at that. Ironically, with the current political attacks on undocumented immigrants who normally perform this kind of work, there is added pressure on employers unwilling to pay higher wages to encourage the use of prison slave labor instead.

Speaking of slavery, on February 14, 2019, I received a Frederick Douglass 200 award from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and the Anti-Racist Research and Policy Center at American University. The awards ceremony was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and 77 of the 200 people nominated for the awards showed up to receive them. To celebrate the bicentennial of Douglass’ birth, the awards recognize one person per year who has worked for equality and justice. My award was in the category of abolitionist. It is a sad commentary on American politics that 200 years after Frederick Douglass was born a slave, the U.S. Constitution still enshrines slavery in the Thirteenth Amendment for people convicted of a crime. 

The notion of forcing prisoners to work for little or no pay is deeply engrained in American society. Former prosecutor and California attorney general, and now U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris (who was also a Frederick Douglass 200 awardee but did not show up to receive it), became infamous when she argued before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that if California’s prison population was reduced to comply with court-ordered population caps, it would reduce the pool of prisoner firefighters who are paid a dollar a day to risk their lives protecting the homes of millionaires from wildfires. [See: PLN, Feb. 2019, p.30]. When I read articles and hear politicians speak about slavery and human trafficking, I wonder “what about American prisoners?” Alas, our political class cares little about their enslavement.

Just as slave owners in the 1800s prohibited slaves from being able to read or write, and made it a punishable offense for anyone to teach them literacy skills, we see similar efforts to ensure U.S. prisoners are deprived of reading materials. At the end of January, HRDC staff attorney Dan Marshall, local counsel Paul James and co-counsel Caesar Kalinowski IV and I litigated a bench trial before Judge Timothy Brooks in federal court in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The case centered around the Baxter County jail’s ban on newspapers, books, magazines and lettered mail. The facility also does not allow televisions or radios. After the trial, the picture that emerged was of a jail that gives medieval dungeons a bad name. After 30 years of doing prisoner rights advocacy, this is the first detention facility I have heard of that bans TVs. Further, Sheriff John Montgomery is the first corrections official I have ever heard admit that he has no concern at all about rehabilitating prisoners or reducing the 73 percent recidivism rate in Baxter County. Not only does the jail prohibit prisoners from receiving books and magazines, it also does not supply reading materials. Jail officials testified that the “book cart” of “light fiction” books was discontinued years ago. The jail’s “law library” literally consists of a milk crate with five or six statute and court ruling books from the 1990s. By global standards, it is rare to have a jail that so totally cuts prisoners off from the outside world in every way possible. You can read about the jail in the sheriff’s own words at

That the Baxter County jail so blithely tramples the rights of its citizens should come as no surprise. As a nation we spend billions each year supposedly to ensure our children can read and write. Yet once they are accused of a crime and jailed, government officials do everything they can to ensure prisoners have no access to reading materials. In some respects, Frederick Douglass was better off on a plantation in the 1830s, as he could at least access books to teach himself to read. Prisoners in the Baxter County jail and many others across the U.S. do not have that luxury.

Included on p.9  is a courtroom photo of the HRDC legal team which includes Dan, myself, our local counsel Paul James, and Caesar Kalinowski IV – our co-counsel from the Seattle law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. The judge has taken the case under advisement and will issue a ruling within a few months. We need your support to litigate and win these censorship suits. If HRDC isn’t going to the Baxter Counties of the nation to fight these types of cases, then no one is. If you care about the First Amendment and free speech, and believe in an independent media, then please make a donation to help support HRDC’s work. All donations, no matter how large or small, make an enormous difference in the work we are able to do. The government fights us tooth and nail – to the last penny of taxpayer money – to prevent prisoners from being able to read newspapers, books, magazines and letters from their families. It is ironic that in 2019 we are still fighting to secure a 15th century means of communication: the written word.

Lastly, on the topic of freedom fighters, on December 26, 2018, California prisoners lost one of their most brilliant and ardent defenders when attorney Jane Kahn died after a struggle with brain cancer. This issue of Prison Legal News is dedicated to her memory, and a more detailed obituary is included on page 28.

This is the fourth consecutive issue of PLN that has been dedicated to criminal justice activists and advocates who have recently passed away. The only thing I dislike about being the editor of PLN is noting the deaths of our friends and allies, who are greatly missed. 

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login