I got to Clallam Bay right after it opened as a maximum-security prison. It was, and is, a pretty violent and racist prison—racist in the sense that all the guards were white. I filed complaints about it with the governor’s office, describing how unarmed and nonresistant prisoners were getting the crap beaten out of them by prison guards. There was one beating I witnessed where a bunch of white guards beat up a black inmate. I wrote press releases to all the media outlets I knew—this was in 1990—and got no response. So we ran the story in PLN, and then prison officials infracted me for “lying” about staff to get them in trouble. But I wasn’t lying; I saw it with my own eyes. Eventually they dismissed the infraction and, in the issue that circulated the prison, they blacked out the sentence naming the supervising sergeant of the guards who did the beating. But subscribers outside got the full version. The officials were miffed, so a couple weeks later, they put me in what they called “administrative segregation”—solitary confinement—for, like, three weeks. My thing has always been, don’t personalize things, and don’t get angry. You get angry, you make errors in judgment.

One of the ironies was that I got no media interest in the beatings themselves, but my being retaliated against for writing about the beatings made it to the front page of The Seattle Times. I’m glad that the shoot-the-messenger thing gets some media play, but I think it’s kind of a skewed sense of priorities.

Still, after the Times ran their story, the beatings slowed down for a while. The media does have some control over these issues. There are a lot of examples where doing big exposés and detailed series on stuff has led to concrete changes in the prison systems. We’ve worked with The Seattle Weekly, CounterPunch, and a lot of other outlets over the years. I’ve always been about disseminating. Our goal was to push stuff out to bigger media outlets. One of the reasons I started PLN is I think so much of what happens in American prisons is pretty indefensible. People will say, ‘Well, we don’t know what’s going on.’ If people don’t care about it once they know, I can’t do anything about apathy. But I can do something about ignorance.

Not such good PR

The issue we’ve single-handedly put on the map in this country is private companies profiting from using prison labor. These companies do this in total secrecy, and they go to great lengths to avoid being associated with it. We’ve broken a lot of stories about it, including the use of prison labor by some of the world’s largest companies. Microsoft and Starbucks used prison labor for packaging. Boeing had prisoners making aircraft parts. Planet Hollywood, Eddie Bauer, and Union Bay were all using prisoners as garment manufacturers. The height of irony was when Nintendo was using inmates at Twin Rivers Correction Center, which houses Washington’s sex-offender treatment program, to package children’s video games.

In 1994, a conservative Republican named Jack Metcalf was running for Congress in the district where the prison I was in was located. He was campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform, advocating his support for the death penalty. He was using a company, Washington Marketing Group, which employs prisoners, to do his telemarketing.

A week before the election, one of the prisoners who worked for the Marketing Group is telling me, “Wow, you won’t believe what we’re doing! We’re calling up all the registered voters in District 2 and giving them this bogus survey.” He said one of the questions was something like, “Did you know that Jack Metcalf supports the death penalty and his opponent doesn’t?” The guy who’s telling me this is a serial rapist. Metcalf was running on a tough-on-crime platform and using a bunch of rapists and killers to do his outreach messaging.

So I call up a lawyer friend who has a lot of media contacts, and I run the scoop by him. He tells the The Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer, and they both tell him that this is not a newsworthy issue. So I contact Ken Silverstein, who was then at CounterPunch, and George Howland, who was then the news editor of The Stranger, Seattle’s alt-weekly. Both venues broke the Metcalf story a week after the election. Eventually, it becomes page-one news in The Seattle Times, and then it’s picked up by TV news and becomes a big story.

Exposing censorship

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.