Paul Wright began his journalism career behind bars. When he was 21, Wright killed a man in Federal Way, WA, during a botched hold-up; the cocaine dealer he went to rob reached for a gun, and Wright fired first. He claimed self-defense, but was convicted of first-degree felony murder in 1987. Rather than languish, Wright began studying the law, and spent most of his time in Washington State’s prison system writing, reporting, and litigating for Prison Legal News, a magazine he co-founded with fellow inmate Ed Mead in 1990. (He served 17 years of a 25-year sentence, and was released in 2003.) Some Washington prisons tried to ban PLN, but Wright became an experienced jailhouse lawyer and convinced the courts to overturn those decisions—something he’s since done in nine other states, with three cases pending. What started as a 10-page newsletter is now a 56-page monthly magazine with subscribers in all 50 states and several other countries. PLN has a staff of five, and is the centerpiece of a growing nonprofit—recently renamed the Human Rights Defense Center—with a litigation arm focused on prisoners’ rights, a book-publishing operation, and a budding Web presence. Wright has written three books (two while in prison). CJR’s Alysia Santo spoke with him in PLN’s office in West Brattleboro, VT.
From killer to crusader
The worst phone call I ever made was when I was sitting in jail and called my parents to tell them that I’d been arrested on murder charges. I grew up in Lake Worth, FL. My dad worked for the post office and my mom was a housewife. I liked to read and stay up on what’s happening, but my career goals were always in the law-enforcement arena, not journalism. I graduated high school when I was 16, and then went to Mexico to teach English. I came back to the US when I was 18 and joined the Army. I was stationed in Hanau, Germany, as a military policeman. When I came back to US, I went through a military police investigator course, and I was working as a military police officer in Washington when I was arrested.
In retrospect, it was really pathetic. I was making $400 a month, and they had just cut our per diem. I was looking for a way to make fast money. I chose to rob a drug dealer. Cops ripping off drug dealers isn’t uncommon; I wasn’t the first or last guy to have that idea. I was arrested about a week before I was due to get out of the Army. I don’t really think that what I did, or my time in prison, defines me as a person, but for a lot of people it does. I can’t do anything about that.
I thought I was pretty well informed about most things, but the treatment of prisoners surprised me. If you don’t know any better, you think, Wow, they’ve got the guns, so they can do whatever they want. But over time I started to feel that regardless of what I’d been convicted of, I deserved to be treated better than I was. After I’d been inside about two years, the guards came into my cell one day and dumped out my Cap’n Crunch cereal on the floor. I’m making 42 cents an hour and a box of Cap’n Crunch is $3—I thought that was quite the outrage. I started looking into what legal remedies I had, and that’s what got me interested in the law and prisoners’ rights advocacy.
I met Ed Mead in ’88. He had been doing litigation for a couple of decades. He was publishing a newsletter at that time that he called The Abolitionist, which eventually folded, and we decided to start a prison publication. We had $300, and we figured we could do a 10-page newsletter at $50 a month for six months. In 1990, we did our first issue. We sent out 75 copies, mostly to prisoners and activists we knew would be interested. That was over 250 issues ago.
In 1993, Ed got out of prison. Since he was on parole, he wasn’t allowed to correspond with any convicted felons. We sued the Washington review board to challenge that order, but lost. Once Ed was out, he kind of moved on. I haven’t talked to him in over a decade.
Muting the messenger