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Detailed CA article about Prison Legal News

Daily Journal, Jan. 1, 1999.

Detailed CA article about Prison Legal News - Daily Journal 1999

Prison Paper Publisher Breaks Stories With an Insider's Ear
Prison Paper Is Popular Inside and Outside

By Ashby Jones

Daily Journal Staff Writer

Dec. 15, 1999

SEATTLE - A couple of years ago, Paul Wright read a short blurb in one of Seattle's daily newspapers. Washington state was conducting an investigation of white supremacist activities among guards in its state prisons, the story said. Weeks later, after no follow-up report, Wright filed a Public Disclosure Act request with the state for the results of the investigation.

Wright reviewed the documents that arrived and concluded, contrary to the official state findings, that racism was indeed alive and well among the state's white prison-guard population. He contacted Jennifer Vogel, then a writer at the Seattle Weekly, who looked into Wright's tip and ultimately turned it into a March 1999 feature for her publication. The article chronicled widespread white supremacist and hate activities among guards at a number of the state's most populated prisons and, properly, credited Wright for digging up the roots of the story.

What makes this vignette remarkable is this simple pair of facts: First, since May 1987, Wright has been imprisoned for murder and, second, Wright's incarceration hasn't stopped him from breaking a number of similar investigative stories over the past decade.

Indeed, since he co-founded Prison Legal News from behind bars at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center in early 1990, both Wright and his publication have been on a slow but steady ride to a strange sort of underground celebrity. The pioneering PLN, which is entering its 10th year of providing legal analysis and news to prisoners, appears in nearly every prison in the country, a phenomenon largely attributable to the gritty efforts of its editor and co-founder, who has steadily gained hard-won admiration and respect.

"What Paul Wright has been able to do in 10 years is nothing short of astonishing," Mickey Gendler, a Seattle-based civil rights lawyer, said. "Accomplishing anything the least bit productive from inside a prison is quite a feat, let alone being able to run an incredibly impressive publication."

"He gets more done on a daily basis than I do, and I have money, help, and freedom," Len Schroeter, another Seattle-based attorney, added. "He's a remarkable person, and he's truly made himself a national asset."

It is undeniably tall praise for a convicted murderer, but refuting the improbable magnitude of what Wright has managed to achieve is hard. In 1990, motivated by a desire to "help give prisoners a more informed voice on criminal justice issues," Wright and his fellow inmate Ed Mead founded the publication on a shoestring budget of $50 and with access to little more than two typewriters and their respective prison law libraries. Today, PLN maintains a circulation of close to 3,000, pays a salary to two employees,
and boasts names such as Noam Chomsky and Rolling Stone magazine's William Grieder as subscribers.

But to Wright, who was moved to the Washington state reformatory at Monroe in 1992 and has been there ever since, success has been the easiest to measure by the height of the ever-escalating stacks of mail he receives from lawyers and prisoners who unabashedly sing PLN's praises.
"The mail gives me the sense that it's providing a useful service," Wright said of the monthly publication, which typically comprises an even split between general prison-related news and legal news and analysis. "Our mission is to tell prisoners, first of all, what their rights are and, second, how to vindicate them. My sense of it is that we're succeeding at both."

In its current form, the magazine runs 32 pages. Each issue features trend pieces contributed by practitioners, reviews of self-help litigation manuals, and summaries of recent prison-related legal opinions written chiefly by Wright and, until last month, Dan Pens, PLN's former news editor. The look of the magazine is as sober as its subject matter - it uses no color and fills nearly all of its pages with text, something Wright seems particularly proud of.
"Over the years we've worked hard to expand our depth of coverage," he said. "But we haven't added any fluff. After 10 years, there are no horoscopes, no crossword puzzles, and no lonely hearts column. We're a purposeful publication, and we want to maximize the benefit we bring our readers in the space we can afford."

Not surprisingly, the tone of PLN is unapologetically pro-prisoner.

Feature stories often discuss egregious prison activities across the country, and case summaries are typically laced with editorializing. In spite of this, many think the magazine retains a respectable amount of journalistic integrity.

"It's pretty clear that PLN lives in an us-vs.-them world," Gendler said. "But they dutifully report adverse legal developments, and their case summaries are always accurate. There's a bias, but it's still enormously useful to lawyers."

Even Wright likely would admit that the magazine is more useful to its readers now than it was in 1990, when it was chartered as a 10-page mimeographed and stapled compendium of case summaries. Production of the magazine's earliest issues was rudimentary - Wright, who was then at Clallum Bay, and Mead, who was serving time on an unrelated charge at Monroe, would each independently type up five pages and send them to Wright's father in Florida, who would then make copies and distribute them to their small handful of supporters and subscribers. At the time, Wright and Mead charged $10 for a year's worth of issues. (The current rates are $15 per year for prisoners, $25 for nonincarcerated individuals and $60 for attorneys and law

Largely through word of mouth and the committed efforts of Wright, Mead, Pens and another prisoner, Fred Markham, who is now the magazine's circulation director, the magazine slowly took off. By 1992, it had 300 subscribers, a number which doubled the following year.

"Once a prisoner sees a copy of the magazine, it's an easy sell," said Markham, who met Wright at Monroe and worked hard to circulate the magazine there and during a subsequent prison stint in Texas. "You just have to convince the prisoners that PLN is better for their health than cigarettes and coffee."

Early on, nearly everyone doubted the efforts. "I remember one of the wardens telling me that the PLN would never work - that we'd be finished with it in six months," Wright adds, "but we kept getting enough $10 checks to put out another one, then another one, and another one. Somehow the number's reached 3,000."

Adding to the improbable nature of PLN's success is the fact that states have repeatedly attempted to bar the publication from reaching its incarcerated subscribers. The Washington state Department of Corrections censored the first three issues and the May 1999 issue, which reprinted Vogel's Seattle Weekly story. The magazine recently wrapped up litigation in Washington and Michigan; is currently litigating in Utah, Oregon and Alabama; and may soon file suit in Nevada and Colorado.

"Certain states have established an aggressive vendetta against PLN and Paul Wright," Gendler said, "and they'll do or say just about anything to get it censored. It makes what he's achieved all the more remarkable."

The censorship efforts no longer faze Wright, who explains that he rarely has any trouble finding a lawyer to take his cases on a pro bono basis. "We've got the censorship litigation down to a fine art," he said.

"We've got a network of fantastic lawyers out there who fight hard for us. We usually do quite well."

Others credit Wright for PLN's courtroom success. "To be very frank about it, Paul Wright's a pain in the ass," Schroeter added. "But that's unquestionably part of the reason he's been so successful - because his commitment is absolute. He'll talk your ear off about his ideas and beliefs, and he'll do it with passion."

One topic Wright is less garrulous about is his life outside of prison, including his murder conviction. Wright said only that he was in the process of robbing a drug dealer when the drug dealer tried to shoot him.

Wright shot back and killed the man. Because he committed the killing in furtherance of a robbery, Wright was convicted of felony-murder, an automatic first-degree murder charge. At the time, he was 21 and was less than a week away from finishing a six-year stint with the Army.
Wright will be released from Monroe in January 2004 and said little about what he plans on doing after he's out.

"I'd like to spend time with my family," he said, referring to his wife of seven years and his two small children. "Of course I'd like to find a way to keep PLN going, as well."

Schroeter, for one, would like to see Wright released sooner than in four years' time. "It's absolutely ridiculous to keep Paul Wright incarcerated," he said, adding that Wright is rumored to become a vice president of the National Lawyer's Guild soon. "He's self-taught, his supporters love him and he provides an immensely valuable service."

"And the truth is that he's probably more dangerous to his opponents on the inside," Schroeter added with a laugh.

NOTE: This is a slightly different version than the print version of this Daily Journal article. ~ PLN Staff

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