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Doing Wright 

Journalist/activist Paul Wright goes to the wall for American prisoners

click to enlarge STEFAN BUMBECK
  • Stefan Bumbeck

Paul Wright's entire criminal career lasted 60 seconds - just enough time for him to klll a man. It was Super Bowl Sunday, 1987, and Wright was a 21-year-old Army M.P. with a week to go before his expected honorable discharge. In his first and only run-in with the law, Wright botched an attempted robbery of Curtis Smith, a cocaine dealer in Federal Way, Washington. The jury rejected Wright's self-defense plea, and he was sentenced to 25 years, four months in prison.

Thus began Wright's longer, and much more successful, career as a journalist, editor and prisoners' rights activist. The vocation has outlived not only his prison sentence but also numerous attempts by prison officials around the country to stifle Prison Legal News, his jailhouse publication. Since its inception in May 1990, PLN, as it's commonly known, has published more than 200 issues, becoming the longest-running prison publication in U.S. history. It can now be found in virtually every prison in the United States.

Over the years, PLN has broken dozens of stories whose legal and political reverberations were felt on both sides of the razor wire. In 1994, Wright uncovered the fact that Jack Metcalf, then a Republican congressman from Washington's second district, was using prison labor to staff his get-out-the-vote telemarketing campaign. (The Seattle Times, which had endorsed Metcalf and his tough-on-crime platform, ignored the story until after the election; Metcalf was re-elected by 600 votes.)

In 1996, Wright and PLN exposed how the Microsoft Corporation was using prison labor to package some of its software, including its heavily marketed Microsoft Office '95. And in 2006, PLN revealed that six members of Fred Phelps' family - founders of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, who routinely picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers and gay murder victims - were working as lawyers for the Kansas Department of Corrections.

Wright, who moved to Vermont after his release in 2003, still muckrakes about the abysmal conditions in U.S. prisons, including the pervasiveness of abuse, medical neglect, prisoner-on-prisoner violence, guard brutality and retaliation. His 48-page monthly, which has a circulation of nearly 6000, has run articles by such authors as civil rights attorney William Kunstler, former Washington Post and Rolling Stone editor William Greider, and convicted murderer and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal.

PLN reaches well beyond the lonely lifers who are writing their own appeals. The publication can also be found in public libraries, Ivy League law schools, judges' chambers, and even the offices of prison wardens and corrections officials, including some in Vermont. Its readers include Noam Chomsky and billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Institute gave PLN a $200,000 grant in 2005.

"We're a small publication, but we've always had an influence that's pretty far out of proportion to our readership," says Wright, 41. "We've never aimed at being a general-circulation publication. We're targeting people who are doing something behind bars, and policymakers and opinion makers on the outside."

Those movers and shakers include some of Wall Street's largest and most prestigious investment banking firms. Why do they get PLN? "Because they bankroll the private prison industry," Wright says, with a smirk.

"He's done some really important First Amendment lawsuits around the country," notes Dawn Seibert of the Vermont Defender General's office. "There's a lot of fear on the part of prison administrators about prisoners' having information. But they're entitled to have it."

Mike Cassidy, managing attorney at Prisoners' Legal Services of New York in Plattsburgh, agrees. "I've always found PLN to be a really impressive publication. It's a great resource for us," Cassidy says. "It reports on cases, it educates prisoners about their rights, and at the same time, it's also an example of prisoners' rights to information and the press."

Seven Days caught up with Wright last week at his home and office in Brattleboro, where he publishes PLN with the help of two staffers. Wright relocated to Brattleboro to be close to his two sons, whom he sees several times each week. His nonprofit outfit also maintains a business office in Seattle, which, among other things, screens the more than 1000 pieces of mail PLN receives each week.

Wright is a tall and stocky, yet unimposing, man of about 6 feet 2 inches. His thinning black hair, rectangular glasses and gentle demeanor make him seem more like a computer geek than a convicted murderer and former prison rabble-rouser. The office above his garage is sparsely decorated, with a wood-burning stove in one corner, a few computers and bookshelves filled with back issues of PLN and books on correctional issues. They include The Celling of America and Prison Nation, collections to which Wright contributed as writer and co-editor. On a wall hangs a large red banner bearing the familiar visage of Che Guevara above the words "Hasta La Victoria Siempre."

Wright speaks tersely but matter-of-factly about the murder he committed 20 years ago. "Robbing drug dealers wasn't a very original idea," he admits. "But like Willie Sutton once said, 'It's where the money is.'"

When he entered the Washington State Reformatory in 1987, Wright had no experience with journalism or law and even less with penal issues. "Until I went to prison, I probably knew about as much as the average person does about prison, which is nothing," he says. "Of course, I'd seen Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, and that was about it."

Wright soon discovered that life behind bars was, as he puts it, "an alienating, brutal and dehumanizing environment. In that sense, it's very similar to the military."

The incident that sparked Wright's activism seems petty compared with the abuses PLN has unearthed over the years. Wright had been in prison less than a year when a guard searched his cell, emptied a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal on the floor and crushed it under his boots. The cereal cost $2, but Wright's job in the prison kitchen only paid $50 a month. In a "what-the-fuck?" moment, he went to the prison law library to find out what could be done to right this grievous wrong - not much, he quickly discovered.

Around this time, an older convict named Ed Gallea took Wright under his wing and explained that he'd better find himself a "hustle" on the inside if he wanted to survive and be financially self-sufficient. As Wright puts it, "My life might have taken a different turn if I'd had a knack for ceramics."

Since Wright's brief stint as a criminal had been a disastrous failure, Gallea suggested he try the law instead. There's always a market for jailhouse lawyers, Gallea told Wright, and the money wasn't bad. Wright agreed and took a job working in the prison law library, fetching books for fellow inmates. Soon he was reading cases himself and subscribing to various prisoner-published newsletters, as well as to radical political rags such as Revolutionary Workers and Workers' World.

The state of Washington had a long history of independent, prisoner-produced magazines, dating back to the 1960s. Among them was The Abolitionist, published by Wright's fellow inmate, Ed Mead. Mead and Wright, who both had Marxist leanings, saw the need for a publication that prisoners could rally around and use to stay abreast of legal issues in the Washington correctional system. The seeds of PLN were planted, but it would take a while for them to bear fruit.

In the meantime, Wright was moved to another prison; he calls the transfer "retaliatory" for his rabble-rousing activities. A decade or so earlier, there'd been a major lawsuit over the wretched conditions at the Reformatory. The prison opened in 1910, and the state had been upgrading it, albeit slowly. "You'd flush the toilet and the next thing you know, you've got a 6-foot geyser of sewage in your cell," Wright recalls.

In an effort to fix the problem, the Washington State DOC shut half the prison and double-celled its inmates in the other half, creating serious health and safety problems. Simultaneously, the state rented out some of its prison beds to Colorado and the federal government, exacerbating the overcrowding.

In response, Wright filed a federal class-action lawsuit. The decision, in Collins v. Thompson, required the DOC to single-cell the prison. Prison officials tried to ignore the ruling. But Wright mounted a successful campaign in which the inmates, as plaintiffs in the class action suit, voted overwhelmingly to single-cell the prison again.

"That's quite the anachronism now," Wright explains. "These days, prisoners have no more say in their existence than Farmer Brown's cows in the field have a say in theirs."

Within 24 hours, Wright found himself in segregation for, as he describes it, successfully winning enforcement of a federal court order. Prison officials saw it differently. They accused Wright of "trying to overthrow the U.S. government." For the remainder of Wright's prison sentence, he would be shuffled between Washington's other prisons, including Walla Walla, McNeil Island and Clallam Bay.

The first issue of Prisoners Legal News, as it was initially called, was published in May 1990 on a budget of $50, using little more than a couple of typewriters and the prison law library. Since he and Mead only had $300 between them, Wright expected PLN to last six months, at best. The two men, now housed in different prisons, wrote their stories separately and mailed them to a volunteer on the outside, who combined the pages, photocopied them and mailed them to subscribers. The first few issues were crude, hand-illustrated flyers just 10 pages long, with the production values of a church newsletter.

Despite its amateurish look, the journal's content was hard-hitting and immediately controversial. The first issue included stories about the suspected murder of an inmate by an Oregon correctional officer; Washington parole board abuses; a federal civil rights ruling on filthy cells; and a court ruling that awarded $241,000 in damages to three prisoners whom guards had handcuffed and beaten during a prison riot. The inaugural issue also outlined Wright and Mead's long-term goals, which included fighting for felons' voting rights, a cause PLN still pursues today.

"While we have no 'party line,' this newsletter will tend to reflect our class orientation," Mead wrote in 1990. "By working to extend democracy to prisoners, we can change from being mere criminals to the defenders of democracy. The first step is in overcoming our demoralization to the point where we can start communicating with each other around political issues. That search for answers is the start."

Attempts to censor PLN came swiftly and proved unrelenting. The first three issues were banned throughout the Washington prison system; the first 18 were barred from all Texas prisons. Once, Mead got "infracted" by prison officials for a copyright violation. Wright had his source materials confiscated during a cell search. On another occasion, their volunteer on the outside disagreed with the contents of a cover story and absconded with the $50 and the subscription list. It took six weeks to publish the next issue. This was the first of two embezzlements PLN would suffer in its history - both by people on the outside.

In another issue, PLN wrote about the alleged beating of a black prisoner by white guards. Corrections officials tried to prevent the story's publication by threatening Wright with 20 days in isolation. He ran the story anyway, and guards excised that article from every copy before it was delivered to prisoners.

Surprisingly, Wright says that corrections officials rarely told him he couldn't write about certain topics. More often, he says, they'd subject him to various forms of retaliation or intimidation, especially on discretionary decisions. For instance, at Walla Walla, he was suddenly told he couldn't work in the prison law library anymore because he was "a security risk."

"The guy who stabbed a prisoner to death over a drug debt was working in the law library, and the guy who's escaped four times was working there," Wright recalls. "But I was the security risk."

PLN obtained nonprofit status in 1992 in order to qualify for a lower mailing rate, and in 1993, the magazine jumped to 16 pages and offset printing. That same year, Mead was released from prison. However, the members of his parole board informed him they'd revoke his parole if he associated with convicted felons, including those at PLN. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Mead's behalf but lost, and Mead and Wright had to part ways. Wright continued publication on his own.

PLN never lacked for content. While some may wonder how a jailhouse journalist vets his sources' credibility, Wright says his growing expertise in searching public records often turned up official documentation of the abuses and wrongdoings on which he was reporting.

"As editors go, I'm pretty conservative," Wright says. "In 200 issues, we've never had to retract a story." Wright claims he never uses anonymous sources, except in cases where a story might compromise the safety of a source, such as articles about prison gang violence.

By 1996, Washington State was trying different tactics to keep PLN out of the prisons, with limited success. When Washington DOC prohibited inmates from receiving nonprofit mailings, PLN sued over that issue and won. Then the state issued a rule that inmates couldn't receive publications paid for out of their trust accounts. PLN got that rule overturned, too. Next, the prisons adopted a policy of not delivering subscription-renewal notices. PLN took the issue to court and got the policy reversed.

"We sued them repeatedly over the same stuff," Wright recalls. "Right now, the prison systems of Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada operate under PLN injunctions, consent decrees, or both. And we've got binding settlements in Alabama, Michigan and Utah." Since 1990, PLN has sparked more than 20 lawsuits over efforts to censor or ban prison publications.

In fact, the day before Seven Days interviewed Wright, PLN filed suit against the Dallas County Jail for banning all newspapers, magazines and other publications. According to published news reports, Dallas County officials claim that prisoners don't need access to printed materials as long as they can watch television. Wright seems optimistic about this case. His last suit of this kind, against Washington State DOC in August 2005, netted his organization $100,000.

Interestingly, PLN doesn't lack for revenue, either. In addition to charging subscription fees - $18 per year for prisoners, $25 for others - the publication runs ads for books, pen pals, phone services and attorneys. Wright claims he even has to turn down some advertisers, usually paralegals whose credentials he can't verify. Once he turned down an ad for a masturbation device for prisoners - not on moral grounds, Wright notes, but because he knew the ad would never make it past prison mailrooms. The sales rep was so appreciative, he sent PLN a $100 contribution anyway.

PLN never set out to become a nationwide publication, Wright says. But by the late 1990s, he realized many of its subscribers were incarcerated in California, Texas and Florida. That out-of-state readership grew, in part because other prison publications had been censored. Still others had folded - in some cases, Wright admits, because of declining political activism among inmates themselves. When PLN started in 1990, Wright notes, there were six prisoner-published newsletters in California alone. Today, there are none.

"There are 2.3 million people locked up in this country," Wright notes. "We're the only publication that covers detention facilities. That's a crying shame."

Brattleboro seems an unlikely base of operations. Vermont's prison population is a fraction of those in New York, California, Texas, Florida or Washington, the states where most of PLN's readers are housed. And Wright acknowledges that Vermont doesn't experience the level of prisoner-on-prisoner violence or guard brutality that occurs in larger prisons elsewhere.

That said, "In Vermont, the medical care and retaliation are as bad as everywhere else," Wright claims. He points to last week's death of Gary Ploof, a newly furloughed inmate at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, as well as to several other high-profile deaths of inmates in recent years. To Wright, these incidents are symptomatic of underlying problems in the state's prisons.

Wright's first introduction to Vermont came from a Florida inmate named James Quigley, one of PLN's earliest contributors. Like Wright, Quigley was a convicted murderer turned jailhouse lawyer and prisoners' rights advocate. In February 2001, Quigley was transferred from Florida to Vermont. Initially, he told Wright that Vermont's prisons were great. Wright says, "I think his exact quote was 'I almost feel like I've paroled.'"

Then, in October 2003, Quigley hanged himself at the Northwest Correctional Facility in St. Albans. According to news reports published at the time, Quigley wasn't believed to be suicidal. Nevertheless, he was the fifth Vermont prisoner to die that year, and the second to hang himself. Six deaths in an 18-month period, Wright says, is "almost unheard of," even in large correctional systems with many times the prison population of Vermont's.

Wright makes no excuses for his own crime 20 years ago. "Things went poorly," he says, "the understatement of the day." He doesn't believe that most prisoners are innocent. But Wright doesn't advocate coddling criminals, either. "I don't have a problem with any punishment, no matter how harsh, as long as it's equally applied," he says, "The problem is, it's not."

The United States has a two-tiered system of justice, Wright argues, one for the wealthy and another for the poor. That explains why certain crimes, such as drug offenses, carry mandatory minimums - they disproportionately target the poor. Other offenses, such as drunk driving and child molestation, do not, because they cut across socioeconomic lines.

It's no accident that conditions in American prisons are miserable, Wright concludes. It's a deliberate and conscious political decision that reflects the common perception of prisoners as an expendable population.

"Nothing has happened at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo that's publicly known at this point that we do not report on a regular basis as happening all the time in American prisons," Wright asserts. "We know that prisoners are being beaten to death on a regular basis in military prisons in Iraq and Guantanamo. That happens on a regular basis here in the United States.

"We know prisoners have been sexually assaulted and humiliated by their staff, exposed to freezing temperatures, subjected to sensory deprivation, held in restraints and painful positions for long periods of time," he continues. "All that happens in American prisons, too - and we're the ones reporting on it."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.


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