(CN) — Job prospects weren’t a problem for Paul Wright when he was released in 2003 after 17 years in the Washington state prison system. He needed to get to a computer fast.
Within two hours he was seated in front of one, at the Seattle office of Prison Legal News, learning from its executive director and circulation manager how to use the Internet and email.
Though the technology was still in its adolescence, it was light years from what Wright, 51, used to produce the magazine’s first issue.
Frustrated that prisoners had no voice in the media coverage of the criminal justice system, Wright founded Prison Legal News in 1990 from his cell, laying out pages with a pencil and ruler, pasting graphics with a glue stick and typing the copy.
Looking back 25 years later, Wright wrote in Prison Legal News’s 301st issue that he didn’t expect the monthly magazine to withstand the hostilities of prison officials, and the challenges of finding someone trustworthy on the outside to distribute it — and it almost didn’t.
“The first three issues were banned in all Washington state prisons, the first 18 in all Texas prisons,” Wright wrote in the May 2015 retrospective.
Richard Mote, of Seattle, volunteered to photocopy and mail the first 10-page issue to 75 prospective subscribers for Wright and the magazine’s co-founder, fellow Washington prisoner Ed Mead.
“Mote turned out to be mentally unstable. He refused to print and mail PLN’s second issue because he took offense to an article written by Ed that called for an end to the ostracization of sex offenders,” Wright wrote.
“Mote took off with all of PLN’s money that contributors had sent, about $50, the master copy of the second issue and our mailing list. For several weeks it looked like there would be no second issue of PLN.”
But they found another volunteer to print and distribute PLN and hired their first employee in 1996.
PLN has grown to 72 pages, more than $165,000 in annual advertising revenue, 13 full-time staffers — with offices in Lake Worth, Fla., Seattle and Tennessee — and over 7,000 subscribers in prisons and jails in all 50 states, which doesn’t account for the average of 10 people who read each magazine, as gauged by a reader survey.
And it’s not just prisoners who subscribe.
Penny Schoner, 82, is a paralegal who works for the Prisoner Activist Resource Center, a prison abolitionist group.
“All the attorneys I know subscribe to it, and we’re in California,” Schoner said, “We’re in Oakland. We’re working on that great big class action that was won recently against the state to stop solitary confinement.”
She credited Prison Legal News for its extensive coverage of Ashker v. Governor of California, which the state settled on Sept. 1, 2015, ending indefinite solitary confinement in the state.
Schoner said she’s been part of this “inspiring work” for decades and it keeps her going because “sitting in an armchair is not a good option” at 82.
“I’ve been involved with helping prisoners since 1986, when a judge who was a cousin of my husband asked me to help the family, and I started visiting their nephew and helped him get out by sending him books and getting him interested in studying and not being a jerk any longer,” she said.
Helping prisoners navigate through the legal system is a major part of the mission of Prison Legal News and its parent, the nonprofit Human Right Defense Center.
Wright entered prison at 21 after he was convicted of killing a cocaine dealer he was trying to rob. He said it was self-defense.
He founded Prison Legal News in his mid-20s as he was gaining a reputation as a jailhouse lawyer and inmates sought his help on their cases and in finding lawyers on the outside, Wright said in an interview.
PLN’s general counsel Lance Weber says its coverage sometimes serves prisoners who have no access to a law library.
“Prison Legal News … is frequently the only source of legal information available to prisoners, as law libraries are simply not available in many prisons and jails,” Weber said in an email.
Prison Legal News carries ads for jailhouse lawyer how-to guides.
Schoner said the offerings are “an amazing help to prisoners.”
“Law isn’t rocket science,” she said. “It’s a lot of paying very, very good attention and reading a lot, and people can pick it up. So I think they choose the right people to write for them and it’s an outstanding publication.”
Ninety to 95 percent of the magazine is written by current or former prisoners, Wright said.
One of its well-known columnists is Mumia Abu-Jamal, 62, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman.
Abu-Jamal, a former Black Panther Party member who obtained his bachelor’s degree from Goddard College in Vermont while in prison, is a prolific author and journalist.
His alma mater asked him to give a commencement speech in October 2014, and it was delivered via recording.
Within three weeks, Pennsylvania lawmakers passed the Revictimization Relief Act, giving crime victims the right to sue the perpetrator for injunctive relief if they could show the offender’s conduct caused them mental anguish.
Prison Legal News and others sued in response and a court struck down the law in April 2015.
Censorship remains PLN’s biggest obstacle.
Since 2010, PLN has filed 10 lawsuits against prisons and jails across the country that instituted “postcard only” mail policies to stop prisoners from getting magazines and PLN-produced books, such as the “Prisoner Diabetes Handbook.”
So Wright was not overselling it when he wrote in the May 2015 issue, “PLN remains the most-censored publication in the United States.”
Wright says he did not benefit at all from his years in prison, though the hundreds of prisoners who write to PLN each month would likely disagree.
“In a lot of prisoners’ minds PLN ranks right up there with the Department of Justice as being one of your top go-to organizations to try and get help on legal issues,” according to Diane James, 45, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Prisoners’ respect for the publication has become so substantial that one made an independent ad extolling its virtues, according to PLN’s ad manager and finance chief Susan Schwartzkopf.
Schwartzkopf, 50, said she saw the ad while browsing a shopping guide the prisoner made.
“The ad had an attractive woman standing in short shorts and a tight tank top and she was looking over her shoulder,” Schwartzkopf said by email.
“There was a bubble caption by her head that said, ‘Hey baby, those guards being mean to you?’ Then it said something about getting ‘fat stacks of cash’ and listed quite a few article titles from PLN, where a prisoner won their case and was awarded money.
“It went on to sing our praises, so to speak. We didn’t run that in PLN, but I found it hilarious and quite complimentary.”
James corresponds with 3,000 prisoners through her work with the IWW. Many mail her letters citing grievances against prison officials and guards, or seeking guidance on legal issues, and ask her to forward them to PLN to get around censors in wardens’ offices.
“I think with the administration a lot of times if they see a prisoner is sending mail out addressed to PLN, they’ll probably ‘lose the mail,'” she said in an interview.
James, 45, did one year in a North Carolina prison, the result of a larceny habit that had her in and out of county jails. She has moved to Missouri, obtained a liberal-arts degree and a good job that allowed her to quit her two minimum-wage jobs and gave her time to advocate for prisoner rights with the union.
“Our union has decided to let all prisoners join for free because slavery is a labor issue,” she said. “So prisoners are working for a $1 a day and in some places they get paid $0 a day and they’re working for for-profit corporations, so that affects the job market.
“I go to apply for a job for and they’ll say, ‘Why would I hire you for four times the minimum wage when a prisoner can do it for $1?’ So we think that’s a labor issue and labor unions should address it. So that is my angle and how I got into this.”
Prison labor and the 13th Amendment’s outlawing of slavery for everyone but prisoners has been featured and revisited in PLN since its first issue.
Alex Friedmann, 47, PLN’s managing editor, was released from a Tennessee prison in November 1999 after serving 10 years for armed robbery, aggravated robbery and assault with attempt to commit first-degree murder.
He began corresponding with Wright and writing for PLN from prison in 1996.
He now spends more than 12 hours a day in front of his computer working on the magazine, taking a few hours off for dinner, he said.
Part of Friedmann’s incarceration was in a prison managed by the Nashville-based private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which gave him a visceral enmity for the company one can see in his work.
Friedmann said his most memorable work for PLN was his successful yearlong campaign to stop the U.S. Senate from confirming CCA’s then-general counsel Gustavus A. Puryear IV to a federal judgeship. President George W. Bush nominated Puryear to the Middle District of Tennessee, the home district of CCA, in June 2007.
Wright detailed how Friedmann derailed Puryear’s candidacy and shrewdly preempted online movements in support of Puryear’s candidacy in the March 2009 issue of PLN.
“The touchstone and focal point of the opposition campaign was Friedmann’s website, www.againstpuryear.org, which laid out the various arguments against Puryear’s nomination and included links to supporting documents and nomination-related news coverage,” Wright wrote in PLN.
“The site, which went live in January 2008, received almost 4,000 unique visitors over a 10-month period. According to analytics software, CCA kept a close watch on the Tennesseans Against Puryear website, visiting it 295 times — almost once a day. In order to thwart a counter site, Friedmann had also reserved the domain name for www.forpuryear.org.”
Friedmann owns shares in CCA, through which he engages in shareholder activism. He said he filed a resolution with CCA in 2015 asking for “proxy access,” a way for large shareholders to nominate board members, and the company implemented it without a vote.
As a practical matter, Friedmann said, ex-convicts have the experience to teach others about incarceration and the criminal justice system. He said they don’t often editorialize about how bad the prison system is, because its “dismal state … speaks for itself.”
“If you have a problem with your plumbing, you call a plumber. If it’s a problem with your electricity, you call an electrician. When you have a problem with your prison system, you should speak with prisoners and former prisoners. Those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution,” Friedmann said.
Case in point: The Human Rights Defense Center and PLN led a fight against the extremely high rates that phone providers charge prisoners, and it paid off in 2015 when the Federal Communications Commission voted to cap rates.
Jennifer Erschabek is executive director of the Texas Inmates Families Association, a nonprofit that pushes for new legislation and meets with prison officials to advocate for policy changes.
“TIFA supported their Prison Phone Justice Campaign by writing letters and providing written testimonies. In 2014, Texas families paid over $36 million to talk to their loved ones in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and 40 percent of that number went to Texas as a commission,” Erschabek said in an email. “Families most of the time are those who are least able to afford paying into these systems, but a lot of times they are just considered as another ‘revenue stream.'”
Wright said that of all the interviews he’s done for PLN over the years, one stands out.
He traveled to Southern California in February 2011 to interview Danny Trejo, an actor with one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood, who is typically typecast as a tough ex-convict, a role he doesn’t shy away from.
Trejo told Wright: “It’s just so funny, because I was interviewed one time and they asked, ‘Don’t you get tired of that? … Oh it’s the mean Mexican guy with the tattoo.’ And I’m like, ‘I am the mean Mexican guy, what are you talking about?'”
Trejo starred in the Robert Rodriguez film “Machete” and has appeared in more than 200 movies. Before he found his calling, Trejo spent 10 years in California maximum-security prisons, then worked as a drug counselor.
Trejo, 72, told Wright in the interview that one day an 18-year-old client called him from the warehouse district of Los Angeles and asked Trejo to come see him because he was on the verge of relapsing into drug use after 108 days sober.
Trejo said he went there and assumed he would talk with the teenager during the teen’s 10-minute break.
“I thought he worked in a warehouse,” Trejo said told Wright. “I thought we were gonna sit out in the parking lot on his break and smoke. You know, drink coffee and smoke, and after the break he was going to go in and everyone was going to think we were gay, you know two guys sitting out there. And it wasn’t, he was on the set of a movie called ‘Runaway Train,’ with Jon Voight.
“I walked onto the set and everybody started staring at me. A guy comes up and says, ‘Hey do you wanna be in this movie?’ He says, ‘You wanna be an extra?’ I say, ‘An extra what?’ And he says, ‘Can you act like a convict?’ And I say, ‘I’ll give it a shot.'”
Wright said he relates to Trejo’s story of overcoming substance abuse and prison to find success in the free world, but more so with how Trejo did it.
“When you’re talking to him and he talks about all the things that are positive in his life, how he got to be a relatively famous movie star and everything else, it all pretty much came about by trying to help other people and doing the right thing,” Wright said.
“I think that’s a really important story and a really important point, because I think a lot of times that people in general, not just people in prison, or who’ve been in prison, I think sometimes get a little mopey or cynical and I don’t think they appreciate or think that ‘Hey you can be a good guy and still wind up doing well for yourself; you can still have a successful career and still do very well.'”
Wright has taken that message to heart. He seems remarkably upbeat for the editor of a magazine that documents a U.S. prison system that doubled its holdings to 2.6 million inmates from 1990 to 2015.
Though PLN has received numerous awards, including the 2013 First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Wright measures the publication’s success in other terms.
“When you have people who are making $30 a month and they’re willing to pay $30 a year to get 12 issues of your magazine, for me, that gives me a sense of value in the work that I’m doing and that it’s appreciated,” he said.
Wright got the basics of email down during his 2003 homecoming to PLN’s Seattle office and now he gets more messages than he can handle.
He recently returned to Florida from a trip to Cuba, where he had no Internet access, to find 3,000 emails in his in box.
As editor of the most-censored publication in the United States, Wright is a wanted man.
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