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Ed Mead: Rest in Power

by Paul Wright

Over the years the saddest duty I have as PLN’s editor is noting the passing of our friends and supporters. As PLN gets older, we are entering our 34th year of publishing with this issue, it seems like more people are dying. On November 6, 2023, PLN’s co-founder and my first coeditor Ed Mead died at home on his 82nd birthday. Ed had battled lung cancer for around a decade, and yes, I told him smoking was bad for him. I am fortunate that on my first trip to Seattle since Covid started, I was able to see Ed last August and as these things go, he was fine.

I met Ed at the Washington State Reformatory in 1988, shortly after I had been convicted and sentenced to 25 years and 4 months in prison. At the time one of the issues was struggling to enforce a consent decree mandating single celling at the prison. Which we won. At that point he had been imprisoned around 14 years for an armed bank robbery he had undertaken as a member of the George Jackson Brigade (GJB). Ed spent 35 years in prison, 18 as a political prisoner, 17 as a social prisoner before his last release in 1993. While in prison Ed became a communist and started organizing prisoners in the early 1970s. After his release, he continued organizing on behalf of prisoner rights in particular and worker’s rights in general. As our friend, and former GJB member Mark Cook liked to say Ed spent much of his life “kicking ass for the working class.”

Ed founded the GJB to help support striking prisoners at the Washington State Penitentiary. Among the Brigade’s first actions was blowing up the DOC headquarters in Olympia. Ed was arrested in a botched bank robbery for the GJB and was not released until 1993. Both during and after his release from prison, Ed liked to publish newsletters as an organizing tool, usually for a few years. When we started PLN in 1990 we had no idea how long it would last. We both contributed $150 each to pay to publish the first six issues and decided we would keep publishing as long as the money came in to do so. We discussed publishing a Washington state newsletter and that is how Prison Legal News came into being, it was difficult because we were in separate prisons after I had been subjected to a retaliatory transfer.

From our separate cells we hand typed the first 8 issues of PLN, Ed did five pages and I did five pages, and we sent them outside our respective prisons to be compiled, photocopied and mailed by outside volunteers. I learned not only the mechanical aspects of prison publishing but also organizing and the political aspects of prison conditions litigation from Ed.

Ed was released on parole in 1993 and as a parole condition the parole board forbade Ed from having contact with me or any other convicted felons for purposes of publishing the newsletter. Over the years, Ed moved on to various projects but remained focused on prisoner rights. This included working with California Prison Focus and starting an organization called Prison Art to help prisoners sell their artwork.

Ed was a prolific writer. All of his newsletters published after he left PLN in 1993 are available on our website, He donated his papers in 2016 to the University of Washington which has turned it into an online archive called the Washington Prison History Project. He also wrote his book, Lumpen: The Autobiography of Ed Mead in 2015. When I told him the book was too long and needed a good editing and I volunteered to do it, he said when he wrote it his doctors had given him less than 3 months to live so it was a rush job.

Ed was an early fan of technology and one of the things he advocated for were computers in prisoners’ cells and the less known of his accomplishments was the founding of the Prison Users Group in 1987 which was about teaching prisoners how to become programmers and having computer professionals come into the prison as volunteers to discuss the latest in computers. One of the things Ed told me shortly after we met was to learn everything I could about computers because it was the future. I thought personal computers were a passing fad but that was one of the better pieces of advice I have ever gotten. For around a six-year period, 1987-1990 and 1993-96 prisoners at WSR had PCs in their cells and none of the 50 or so prisoners who participated in this program who were released have recidivated. Probably even worse from the view of the prison system, many of the participants including Ed, went on to get good paying jobs in the computer industry. So of course, prison officials canceled the program. I credit the in-cell computer program as enabling me to have the skills to effectively use computers both inside prison and upon my release to be able to work as I do. Otherwise I would still be writing articles by hand.

If there is a pantheon for the leaders and heroes in the struggle for the basic human rights of American prisoners, Ed Mead will be in it. For around fifty years Ed dedicated and indeed, risked his life and sacrificed his freedom, for the idea, concept and reality of prisoners as human beings deserving of fundamental respect and dignity. For most of that period Ed said he was a communist. I think he was more of an anarchist as he really was not into organizational structures or building things that lasted. He leaves a rich legacy of struggle and optimism. Ed Mead: presente!  

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