We do a lot of litigation. Some of it is public-records stuff, but the bulk is against prisons and jails that try to ban us. We’ve received pretty substantial results in our cases. This January, we settled a case working with the ACLU against Hill-Finklea [Detention Facility] in South Carolina for nearly $600,000. It was the biggest damage and attorney-fee award in a prison censorship case in American history. They had banned everything but the Bible, and now prisoners can get most books and magazines.

We’re currently banned in Florida and New York [litigation is pending in both], and over the years have been banned in 13 or 14 states. In theory, whenever the magazine is censored, prisons and jails are supposed to notify us and tell us why. But a lot of times we find out from a subscriber. Retaliation is a reality of the American penal experience, so you have a lot of inmates who aren’t going to make a stink about not getting PLN or books from us. That’s why our thing is, “You tell us about it, we’ll take it from there.”

In 2007, we settled a censorship lawsuit against the state of California. This was a pretty big deal; I mean, we just brought the nation’s biggest prison system under a federal court order. We talked to the Los Angeles court reporter at the LA Times and he goes, “Well we don’t really think this is of interest to our readers, Paul.” And I’m like, well, Los Angeles County sends more people to prison than any other county in California, so surely those prisoners have family members that are going to be affected by these changes. And he’s pretty candid and says, “That’s not really our advertising demographic.” But The Herald in Monterey County and the AP did a story on the lawsuit.

People are dying every day in prisons and jails, people are being beat to death, and the press release goes out that Johnny Smith died in an “altercation.” Good journalism is all about sources. You need someone [who] can call someone and say, “What really happened?” To have a level of expertise and contacts with prison administrators, the prisoners, lawyers, and family members—you just don’t see that.

I field a lot of calls from reporters. Typically what I ask is, “How long have you been a reporter? How long have you been covering criminal justice issues?” And a lot of what I get is, “I don’t cover criminal justice. I’m just the general-news guy.”

Too cozy for comfort

The flip side of that is that our news media are very interested in using crime to boost their ratings or circulation. To maintain that relationship with the police and prosecutors, you can’t really be critical of the system, because they’re your sources. And that gets very little analysis, much less soul searching or ethical inquiry, by people in the news media.

That’s one of the things that got me to start Prison Legal News: my annoyance and, frankly, my disgust, with corporate media. At least 30 states in this country have enough going on in their criminal justice systems to fill a monthly newsletter. We know more about what’s happening in the CIA’s torture camps, or their assassination program, than we know about what’s happening in the state prisons down the road from us. In most states today, the prison system is the biggest state agency. In Michigan, one out of every three state employees works for the Department of Corrections. Even though these prison systems are devouring huge chunks of the budget, there’s no news coverage of them.

We’re advocacy-oriented, but the facts are what they are. I’m proud that in 22 years we’ve never had to retract a story. We don’t editorialize; there really isn’t a lot to say. If you as the reader don’t have a problem with people dying of medical neglect for easily treatable illnesses, or with prisoners being raped by the people who are supposed to be guarding them, or billions of tax dollars being funneled off to private corporations, nothing I can tell you is going to change your mind. 

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.