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The Outside Story
An ex-con’s legal magazine fights for prisoners’ rights
by Jenna Fisher
You could say that Paul Wright’s career as a magazine editor was launched in 1987 when he killed a man. It was Super Bowl Sunday. The New York Giants were playing the Denver Broncos. Wright, 21 years old and six days shy of completing his military service, fatally shot a man in a botched holdup attempt—he was robbing a cocaine dealer who turned out to have a gun. Wright claimed self-defense, but he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison in Washington State.
“I guess I didn’t make a very good criminal,” says Wright today. His job as a book fetcher at the prison legal library gave him the chance to study prisoner-related law. And conversations with fellow inmate Ed Mead helped foster an idea about what to do with all that information. Why not start a magazine?
The result is Prison Legal News, a magazine written by and for prisoners. It provides a way for inmates to share news about court cases so that those who might want to file appeals or new cases will have access to the most recent developments.
Between the early 1900s and 1998, more than 200 prison publications were born, according to James McGrath Morris, the author of “Jailhouse Journalism.” One of the most famous is the Angolite, a bimonthly news magazine published in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. It covers issues related to life in the slammer and has won several awards for journalistic excellence. Though the number of prison magazines seems to be shrinking, inmates continue to produce new titles. Most contain artwork, poetry or fiction on plain, photocopied pages. Some cover pop culture outside of prison. Some are prisoner-funded; others are supported by the penal institution itself.
And then there is Prison Legal News, founded in 1990 by Wright and Mead. Several things distinguish it from other prison magazines: It is highly controversial—it has been banned by prisons in several states. It has helped fuel at least 20 cases across the country that have overturned bans or attempted bans by prisons on prison publications. It is the only independently funded prison magazine that has successfully outlasted its founder’s time on the inside. And recently, a major foundation awarded it a six-figure grant.
Many prison publications last only as long as their editors remain behind bars. But when Wright made the transition from prisoner to citizen in late 2003, his editorial offices followed him, even though his base of contributing writers and reporters remained inside prison walls. Now, about 35 percent of the readers are prisoners’ relatives, prison-rights activists and lawyers. The magazine continues to focus on legal cases and prison conditions affecting inmates. PLN has reported on everything from excessive use of force by guards to stifling air temperatures on death row. It maintains a team of volunteer lawyers around the country, who work to obtain public records and fight cases of censorship.
Which is not to say that PLN has won all its fights. In 1994, Mead and Wright sued the Washington Review Board to challenge an order that Mead, who had been sentenced to 18 years for his role in a political bombing incident, have no contact with any felons while on parole. Since most of the people who volunteer and write for the magazine are convicted felons, this meant that Mead could no longer have contact with PLN. The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored the case, but the ban was upheld and Mead had to end his participation in the magazine three years after its founding.
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