Article by John Kiriakou on PLN's suit against Arizona DOC
Exposing the Injustice of Vengeance Against the Convicted
15 May 16
rison Legal News (PLN), a magazine dedicated to prison reform and news developments related to federal and state prison systems, has filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) after the DOC banned four issues of the magazine because of “sexually explicit material.” What’s the nature of this sexual material? It’s four articles about prison guards and other prison employees raping prisoners. The Arizona DOC actions are not meant to ensure the smooth running of the prison system, as it asserts, but instead to keep prisoners in the dark about official abuse, malfeasance, and criminal activity. The DOC has sought to settle the case out of court. Even they recognize that they’re holding a losing hand.
The DOC’s guidelines regarding prisoners receiving sexually explicit material are clear. They state, “Sexually explicit material is defined as publications that feature nudity and/or sexual behaviors/acts and/or the publication is promoted based on such depictions.” The description bears no resemblance whatsoever to Prison Legal News, which contains only news articles and the occasional advertisement.
This Arizona DOC’s actions are not new to Prison Legal News. Indeed, PLN has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Federal Bureau of Prisons, corrections departments, local jails, and states since 2000. Just this year, for example, the Northwest Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, Virginia, agreed to PLN demands that prisoners be allowed to receive the magazine, after initially banning it and all other printed material. Similarly, earlier this year the Nevada Department of Corrections agreed to pay PLN $475,000 and to allow prisoners to receive the magazine after PLN filed a federal suit there. PLN has had similar wins across the country over the past few years.
Other prisoners’ rights organizations get far more news coverage than PLN, a publication of the Florida-based Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC). The Innocence Project, for example, uses DNA evidence to work to exonerate those people wrongly convicted of murder and serving sentences of life, or even death. Every Innocence Project win is major national news.
But it’s the small and underfunded HRDC and PLN that work to defend prisoners’ rights on virtually every other issue. HRDC currently has numerous lawsuits pending against the federal government, states, municipalities, and private prisons, not only related to freedom of speech, but also to prevent prisons from forcing released prisoners to accept all of their remaining commissary money on high-fee debit cards; to prevent prisons from banning all prisoner mail except postcards; and fighting the decision made by several private prisons to ban in-person visits in favor of expensive video-only visits. PLN and HRDC are also leaders in the fight against substandard and incompetent medical care in prisons across the country.
The question is why PLN is the only organization taking on these issues. Frankly, in a real democracy, in a country that respects its own constitution and the rule of law, PLN and an organization like HRDC would not even be necessary. But that’s not the society we live in. We live in a system that seeks vengeance against those convicted of crimes, a society that doesn’t just want people to repay their debts to society, but wants them to continue to suffer, both during and after release.
That’s why there’s no public outcry against the human and civil rights violations that current and former prisoners face every day. That’s why there’s no public outcry when prisoners die unnecessarily in prison because of substandard medical care. That’s why there’s anger when governors reinstate the voting rights of former felons.
Society won’t change by itself. And certainly the lemmings in Congress won’t lead the way. That’s why organizations like HRDC and publications like PLN are so important. They are the only voice for prisoners and for the human and civil rights prisoners deserve.
John Kiriakou is an associate fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a former CIA counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.