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

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.

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.