Takepart profiles PLN in advance of Pivot TV episode on private prisons
Meet Two Former Inmates Dedicating Their Lives to Exposing Injustice
It began with a letter to a stranger in 1995. From a prison cell in Tennessee, then 26-year-old Alex Friedmann reached out to a man named Paul Wright in Washington state. Though the two hadn’t met, they had something in common: They were both young and incarcerated, and they wanted people inside and outside prison to have accurate information about the criminal justice system.
Friedmann was a reader of Prison Legal News, a newsletter Wright founded while serving a sentence for first-degree murder in Washington at the age of 24. The two struck up a conversation by mail, and Friedmann eventually began writing for the periodical, which steadily blossomed into a 72-page monthly publication offering original reporting and analysis on prisoners’ rights and broader criminal justice issues.
“I decided to start the magazine because I thought the American public would be as outraged as I was if they knew what happened in prisons and jails,” Wright tells TakePart. Beyond sparking outrage, Wright saw Prison Legal News as a tool for prisoners like himself who were adrift in the system.
“For the vast majority of people in prison in this country, no one is coming to help them,” he says. “Anything they’re going to do they have to do on their own—and [Prison Legal News] gives them the tools they need to advocate effectively and make change.”
Friedmann, who spent six years of his 10-year sentence incarcerated for armed robbery in a private prison, also wanted to expose the truth of life behind bars in a privately owned facility. In 2005, his epistolary conversation with Wright paid off when he was hired to join Prison Legal Newsfull time after Wright’s release from prison. Today, the two continue to edit and publish the magazine via the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit grassroots publishing house founded by Wright that also houses their litigation and advocacy work. Their story is featured in the new documentary series Truth and Power on Pivot, a network owned by TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media. Watch a sneak peek below:
“Private prisons are the epitome of some of the most significant problems in our justice system,” Friedmann tells TakePart. (Roughly 131,000 prisoners are currently held in privately operated state and federal prisons, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.) “But that doesn’t mean our public prisons are great or a shining example of what they should be—they’re just not operating to make a profit.”
When profit is the primary goal of a prison, the alleged public safety goals of the corrections industry can fall by the wayside, according to Friedmann. The corrections business is valued at more than $70 billion. During his years in a prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Tennessee, he noticed rationing of things like toilet paper and constant staff turnover.
“There’s a great emphasis on cost-cutting,” Friedmann says. “They would use inmate labor for security-related functions like hanging razor wire on the fences.”
At one point, to save money, inmates at the prison were even put to work in the prison’s computer lab, where they had access to blueprints of the prison itself—raising major security concerns.
Both men landed in jail in 1987 after making bad choices: Wright, a former military policeman who was making only $400 a month on his military salary, tried to rob a drug dealer for extra cash and ended up shooting and killing him in the process at the age of 21. Friedmann tried to hold up a store and wound up in a gunfight with the owner when he was 18.
“I was mostly young and stupid and greedy,” Friedmann says.
Wright largely attributes the shooting he was involved in to living in poverty—a trait he shared with many others he met in prison.
“In 17 years, I never met anyone in prison who was rich,” Wright says. “What lands a person in prison has a lot less to do with what they did than their social status and connections.”
While criminal justice reform has slowly gained bipartisan traction in Congress and at the state legislative level over the past few years, both Wright and Friedmann note that their more than two decades working on these issues—during which time sentencing laws grew harsher and the prison population exploded to 2.2 million—have made them a bit cynical.
“Nothing has gotten better by any measurable statistic,” Wright says. “Not a single person in a position of power is talking about improving conditions of confinement for incarcerated people.”
Friedmann acknowledges that his path to advocacy wasn’t ideal, but his firsthand experience is what moved him to act.
“I would not encourage people to follow my career path,” Friedmann jokes. “People need to get involved before they reach that point, before a loved one gets locked up.”
The pair hope and believe that Prison Legal News will continue to raise awareness and encourage people to join the fight for transparency and justice in the criminal justice system.
“Our justice system defines our democracy,” says Friedmann. “If that breaks down, what do we have left?”