Earlier this month, Prison Legal News made headlines after the monthly human rights publication sued the Arizona Department of Corrections, which had refused to distribute several issues to nearly 100 inmates with subscription. The LA Times reported that the DOC had blocked the issues because they contained information about "riots/work stoppages/resistance," "unacceptable sexual or hostile behaviors," and "sexually explicit material." No specific articles were cited, so Prison Legal News assumes that the decision was in response to pieces that dealt with sexual violence in prisons, including violence perpetrated by guards.
The 25-year-old publication—produced by the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center—claims that the Arizona DOC violated its right to free speech. A suit against a government institution would be a drastic step for most publications, but to Paul Wright, the founder and editor of the by-prisoners-for-prisoners mag, that sort of battle comes with the territory.
Wright founded the magazine from within his cellblock with $300 and a list of 75 prospective subscribers in the Washington State prison system. The first issue was ten pages typed entirely by and Paul and another inmate in their cell. Over 300 issues later, the publication has a circulation over 10,000 and focuses on prison conditions, wrongful convictions, the inequities of the prison phone system, free speech, and other prisoner-rights issues.
VICE called Wright to talk about his latest freedom of speech battle, prison censorship, and the evolution of the publication representing those behind bars.
VICE: What inspired you to start Prison Legal News while you were still locked up? Where did you see it going at the time?
Paul Wright: It's kind of like the saying If a tree falls in a forrest… I think that phrase fits with prison issues really well: When prisoners are struggling and no one is around to hear it, is it really happening? The reality is that most prisoners in this country are screwed. There is no one coming to help them. There is no help for them. If you want to try to do anything in this country as a prisoner you need to do it yourself. You need to help yourself. You have to advocate for yourself. Our goal from the beginning has been to give prisoners the tools that they need to be able to do that—to be able to push their issues, advocate for their human rights, and also educate the American public as to what's going on inside America's prisons and jails.
For better or for worse no one with a publishing background has ever been involved in Prison Legal News or the Human Rights Defense Center. If anyone had, they would probably have told us that we couldn't be doing what we have been doing.
What do you feel is the most important article that the publication has run?
Our comprehensive overviews on the prison phone issue, which sought to lower the price of phone calls from jail, was pretty significant because it kicked off our phone justice campaign. Four years after running the first article, the FCC has capped the cost of prison phone calls. To my knowledge, no one had ever run a national article before about the cost of prison phone calls and how that was impacting prisoners and their families.
We've run important articles on the impact of the Prison Litigation Reform Act. We've done big articles on prisoners who've been raped by staff and employees in jails. We've been told that the articles published in PLN have been super helpful in advocating for change at the prisons where readers are locked up. There have been guys who've written us and said, "I didn't have any access to law books or the law library, but I got access to some copies of PLN. By using those, I was able to put in an appeal that I won."
The bigger struggle or dilemma as an editor that I have faced over the past 25 years isn't about what we should or shouldn't publish, but what do we have room to publish, since there's limited space in the publication and we have to prioritize what's going to be most useful to our reader, what will help them in their struggles, what information they need the most.
For more on prison reform, watch an extra clip from our HBO documentary on President Obama's historic visit to a federal prison:
Can you tell me about your censorship disputes in the past?
We started publishing in May of 1990 and literally have been dealing with prison and jail censorship since day one of our existence. It's been pretty much just a nonstop battle. The first three issues of Prison Legal News were banned in the Washington State prison system. Our first 18 issues were banned in the Texas prison system. We've successfully challenged bans at nine or ten state departments of corrections. In Washington, we sued them because they were censoring Prison Legal News when prisoners bought it using their prison trust accounts. We sued them based on our mail classification. We got injunctions on those issues and they started censoring our renewal letters and our subscription forms.
We've won virtually all of our censorship suits. Over the years, we've filed about 60 or 70 suits, yet people still censor us today. All of this goes to show the inherent arbitrariness and power of prison and jail officials. And, amazingly, they're never held accountable for anything. Even when the systems we fight against lose in court, the money doesn't come out of their pockets and they have free lawyers at taxpayer expense. There really is no downside to violating the [censorship] law for them.
Do you think you'll ever overcome censorship?
We've had to fight very hard to get Prison Legal News into prisons and jails. A lot of what we've done, which I am very proud of, is not only change prison and jail rules to allow Prison Legal News in, but also we've always affected a lot of these policies that censored a lot of other publications. As result of our litigation, I'd say probably around 700,000 prisoners from across the country from California to New York to Washington to Georgia, and pretty much anyplace in between, are getting publications and media from the mail that they otherwise wouldn't.
How has Prison Legal News grown since it first started and what kind of impact do you feel you've had?
We have a small circulation but our impact is really disproportionate to our circulation and it's really increased due to the internet. Times have changed so much. Now we have all of our back issues on our website. We've published something like 27,000 articles on prisons and jails. The internet has been able to have a huge impact on the dissemination of news. And our website is accessed every month by over 150,000 people from all over the world.
What do you imagine is in store for Prison Legal News in the future?
When we started publishing, we said we would keep publishing as long as the money was there. I've always said we would do this as long as we are fulfilling a need, and here we are 25 years later—I definitely think there is a need for what we are doing. I hope we are remembered as the publication that was one of the first in this country to start writing about and documenting mass incarceration. The magazine providing timely and accurate reporting about prison as it was happening.
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