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"Free to Shut Up" - Article about parole restrictions imposed on PLN co-founder Ed Mead

The Progressive, Aug. 1, 1994.
"Free to Shut Up" - Article about parole restrictions imposed on PLN co-founder Ed Mead - The Progressive 1994

The Progressive

August, 1994

Free to shut up; ex-convict Edward Allen Mead; Editorial

By Knoll, Erwin

Abuse inflicted on the nearly one million Americans who are serving time in Federal or state penal institutions is a recurrent theme in The Progressive; see, for example, last month's cover piece, "Torture Behind Bars." But there's something different about Ed Mead's story: His constitutional rights were substantially diminished when he was released on parole.

I heard about Ed Mead's peculiar circumstances from his friend, collaborator, and former fellow inmate, Paul Wright, who writes to me from time to time from the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe, usually beginning his letters with the words, "Many greetings from the Gulag." Until Mead's release last fall after almost eighteen years in prison, he and Wright were co-editors and co-publishers of Prison Legal News, a sprightly and informative publication that reports on prison conditions and other aspects of the penal system. Its thousand or so subscribers in this country and abroad include prisoners, lawyers, law libraries, journalists, and concerned citizens. Here at The Progressive, we find PLN interesting and useful.

Wright's latest letter informed me that he and Mead were filing suit in the Federal district court in Tacoma, challenging the conditions of Mead's parole.

"Essentially," Wright explained, "if he has any involvement with PLN, the state will put him back in prison for the sole act of publishing a prison-related magazine, which involves contact with felons."

Edward Allen Mead was one of the young political activists of the 1960s and 1970s whose frustration and rage drove them to resort to violence. He joined the George Jackson Brigade, a guerrilla group that blew up supermarkets, car dealerships, a power station, and other symbols of the system it was bent on destroying. To finance its operations, the Brigade robbed banks.

A 1976 bank robbery in Tukwila, Washington, culminated in a shootout in which Mead and another Brigade member were captured. A third member was killed, and a fourth escaped but was later apprehended. Mead received a thirty-year Federal sentence for bank robbery and a forty-year state sentence for first-degree assault on a police officer, though neither of the officers in the shootout was hit.

He never abandoned his radical politics, but he did decide that violence is not the way to bring about change. Earlier this year, he told a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "I really know how wrong it was to do what I did. Not because it's legally wrong, but because it was just a great political mistake. You want things to happen so bad that you throw yourself into it. Today, I do it with a pen and a computer. . . .

"It's about what works. It's about trying to build something, and those things guns and bombs don't do that. Unfortunately, I was foolish enough to have to learn that the hard way, and it cost me my entire life."

But Mead's long years in prison were not wasted. He filed a suit that brought about the elimination of unlighted isolation cells at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Another of his suits led to a ruling that overcrowding at the state penitentiary constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He organized a prisoners' group called Men Against Sexism to combat prison rapes and the buying and selling of inmates. And five years ago he joined Wright in founding PLN.

Mead's release last fall was a "mistake" by state parole officials. They thought he still had Federal prison time to serve, unaware of the fact that he had succeeded in having his Federal term reduced. As soon as they realized Mead would actually be at liberty, they added an unusual condition to his parole: He was not to "associate with individuals with prior felony convictions," and that specifically included even contact by mail. Mead was effectively barred from communicating with his co-editor, Paul Wright, and with the many prison inmates who correspond with PLN. He was cut off from further work on the paper.

Frank Cuthbertson, an ACLU volunteer attorney in Seattle who is representing Mead and Wright, has filed a brief in Federal court charging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and of the Washington state constitution. He says parole officials are engaged in "willful harassment and infliction of emotional harm upon Ed Mead in retaliation for his lawful exercise of constitutionally protected political speech and association."

For the time being, at least, PLN is still publishing. To subscribe (at $ 12 a year) or obtain more information, write to PLN, P.O. Box 1684, Lake Worth, FL 33460.

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