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Prisoner Education Guide

Articles by Paul Wright

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 ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

You are reading the last issue of Prison Legal News for 2018. This month’s cover story reports on the widespread practice of prison and jail officials censoring books, magazines and correspondence sent to prisoners. Increasingly, that includes restrictions or bans on books mailed from non-profit, volunteer-run Books to Prisoners (BTP) programs around the country, which send free literature to prisoners.

The first BTP program began in Seattle in the early 1970s as part of Left Bank Books, a radical book collective that was active in the liberation struggles of the day, which is still around and mailing books to prisoners almost 50 years later.

HRDC has long had good working relationships with many of the nation’s BTP programs, starting with the fact that they sent me books while I was incarcerated. In the early days of Prison Legal News, many of our volunteers who folded, stapled and mailed our then 10-page, photocopied newsletter were also BTP volunteers, or vice versa. When BTP projects around the nation gathered in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois in 2007 for their first national conference, I was their keynote speaker. I frequently consult with BTP volunteers on censorship issues, and Michelle Dillon, our public records ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

For the past 28 years, Prison Legal News has reported on prison and jail medical care that ranges from abysmal to the barbaric. With the possible exception of California, whose prison system’s health care is under federal receivership, medical and mental health treatment for prisoners throughout the U.S. is universally terrible.

When the Arizona Department of Corrections was sued over poor medical care, the litigation was seen as long overdue. After that case settled it remained to be seen what, if any, commitment state officials had to actually improving health care for prisoners. As this month’s cover story indicates, the answer is not much. Despite well-documented evidence that privatized prison and jail medical care does nothing more than bilk taxpayers and kill prisoners through neglect and deliberate indifference, governmental infatuation with privatization continues.

It does not appear to be any surprise that the Arizona DOC and its medical contractor, Corizon Health, are unwilling to provide minimally adequate health care, with the latter being more focused on enriching its corporate owners. The privatization model is simple: get as much money from taxpayers as possible and deliver as little as possible in return.

Alas, in the medical context ...

Editorial: The Case Against Florida’s Amendment 4 on Felon Voting Rights

by Paul Wright

Florida leads the nation with over 1 million citizens disenfranchised and unable to vote due to felony convictions. The path to having their voting rights restored is long and difficult, and has been found unconstitutional by a federal judge. This November, Floridians who are able to vote will determine whether convicted felons who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation, will automatically have their voting rights restored. With two glaring exceptions: those convicted of murder or a sex offense. [See: PLN, Sept. 2018, p.14].

The problem with Amendment 4, the voting rights ballot initiative, is that it perpetuates the discrimination and bigotry of disenfranchisement against a subclass of ex-felons – those convicted of murder or sex crimes. All the talk of Amendment 4 being about second chances, redemption and reintegration into the community rings hollow and opportunistic when it excludes certain former prisoners from the franchise. No other state constitution, according to The Sentencing Project, singles out citizens by conviction offense with respect to restoration of voting rights.

Around the country, organizations led by former prisoners have made “All of us or none” a rallying cry against this very type of discrimination which seeks to ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

In 1992, the Washington Department of Corrections signed its first prison phone contract with AT&T that required the company to give the DOC a “commission” kickback in exchange for the monopoly contract. Previously, AT&T provided phone services to the DOC with no kickback, using live operators. I wrote about this in the April 1993 issue of PLN, in an article titled “DOC Phone Rip Off” (available on the PLN website, as are all our back issues). Twenty-six years later, prisons and jails in Washington State are still receiving kickbacks as prisoners and their families continue being price-gouged by prison phone service providers and their government collaborators.

This month’s cover story explores the extent and depth of this practice in Washington State and the advent of video calling, as prison telecoms devise new means to monetize human contact between prisoners and their families. Prisoners held in Washington county jails and their loved ones continue to pay exorbitant fees for mediocre telecom services. Further, a growing number of jails are banning in-person visits and instead providing fee-based video calling – a trend not just in Washington but across the U.S.

On September 15, 2018, we filed a petition ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

Welcome to another issue of PLN! We have been reporting on the federal ADX supermax since it opened in 1994 as the U.S. government’s highest-security prison dedicated to destroying human beings through total isolation. Over the years we have covered the myriad abuses and corruption at ADX, including a snitch factory, suicides, the lack of mental health care for prisoners who either became seriously mentally ill through prolonged isolation or were already mentally ill when they arrived, mail censorship, denial of access to journalists and more.

Unsurprisingly, PLN has not been overly popular with the authorities at ADX; our publication has been censored multiple times over the years, and we have sued ADX officials twice. One lawsuit is currently pending on cross-motions for summary judgment. In our previous case, prison staff claimed, incredibly, that they could censor PLN if we mentioned any prisoners or employees by name. Other “offensive” PLN content included articles discussing the legal means (such as habeas petitions or Bivens actions) that ADX prisoners could use to challenge their placement at the facility, among other things.

The current use of long-term solitary confinement at ADX confirms what people have known since at least ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

For anyone who has done time, the obscene prices at the prison or jail commissary are always a source of complaint and wonder. Complaint because they are so high, and wonder because they are so untethered from any reasonable level of profit or reality. As this issue’s cover story notes, prices have increased over the years as commissary services have been privatized and taken over by for-profit companies like Keefe, Aramark, Summit and others.

In a normal market context, high prices are generally not an issue because businesses have competition; if their prices are too high, customers will buy elsewhere. Not so in prisons and jails where, as with other forms of financial exploitation (including phones, video calling, money transfers, e-messaging, etc.), privately-run commissaries rely on government-granted monopoly contracts with no competition to ensure prisoners can be ruthlessly price-gouged. In exchange, the companies usually kick back a percentage of their revenue to the contracting corrections agency – the same model used in the prison phone industry.

These practices have grown and worsened over the past two decades with the rise of a police state premised on the notion of paying for itself on the backs of the ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

Each summer there is a wave of heat-related deaths in American prisons, mostly in the southern states of the former confederacy where the government has adopted a policy of explicit cruelty by building prisons without air conditioning to ensure the misery of the caged. This year will be no different, so we are getting the summer started with an overview of recent litigation and other developments on the excessive – and sometimes fatal – summer heat that U.S. prisoners suffer. What is often overlooked in these stories is the pathetic state of work conditions for staff members. While prisoners endure sweltering cell blocks during the summer months, so do the guards assigned to watch over them; apparently they are content to sweat their way through 40-hour work weeks. It is not about the cost of air conditioning prisons so much as cruelty and making sure prisoners are as miserable as possible, even if it kills them.

On the topic of miserable conditions in the deep south, on May 15, 2018, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the censorship of Prison Legal News by the Florida Department of Corrections. The FDOC has censored all issues of ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

Deaths in jails are all too common in the United States, especially from medical neglect and untreated injuries. They are also usually ignored, as jails have even less oversight than state or federal prisons. Systemic patterns of jail deaths are nothing new, but the occasional media inquiry into them is.

This month’s cover story by the Seattle Met is a good example of what happens in county lockups in every state. Reports like this expose the dramatic need for litigation at the local level to help ensure minimal standards of medical care for jail detainees given the total lack of political will and interest by sheriffs and county officials. Kudos to the Seattle Met for a great investigative piece and for allowing us to reprint it.

We are gearing up for a busy summer here at the Human Rights Defense Center, with an active litigation docket, numerous journalism projects and a record number of interns preparing to spend the summer working on prisoner rights-related issues. Our latest monthly publication, Criminal Legal News, continues to grow and just published its sixth issue with a circulation of almost 1,000 subscribers. If you are interested in policing, sentencing issues ...

From the Editor

by Paul Wright

Welcome to the 28th anniversary issue of Prison Legal News. If someone had told me in 1990, when PLN first started, that nearly three decades later we would not only still be publishing but I would still be serving as the editor and we would have 19 employees, I would have been incredulous.

When Ed Mead and I founded PLN while incarcerated in Washington State, we had $300 between us to publish six issues. We had discussed how we would continue to publish, and decided that as long as donations and subscriptions kept coming in we would keep publishing. They did, and we haven’t stopped since then.

Each year the list of people who support PLN and our parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, grows longer. Those who have made our work possible have ranged from the many unpaid volunteers who helped us get started in the early 1990s to our board members, employees, the attorneys who ensured prisoners could actually receive and read PLN, our advertisers, donors and of course our subscribers.

The first issue of PLN was 10 pages long and we requested a $10 donation for a 12-issue subscription. That we have grown ...


 

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