Cell coverage

How a convicted murderer found his true calling as a jailhouse reporter and prisoners' rights crusader
August 2, 2012

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.

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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

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

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. 

Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.