Feisty prisoner keeps magazine alive

By WARREN CORNWALL

Herald Writer

The law put Paul Wright behind bars. For the last 10 years, Wright has used the law to beat on those same bars.

Armed with a Smith-Corona typewriter, law books, and a tenacity great enough that even one of his fans calls him "a pain in the ass," Wright has, from inside Washington prisons, built up one of the country’s only long-standing news publications written and controlled by inmates.

This year, as "Prison Legal News" marks its first decade in print, it has grown from 10 photocopied pages stapled at the corner to a 32-page monthly magazine mailed to roughly 3,000 people around the country, including judges, state attorneys general, lawmakers and other prisoners.

And it has happened much of the time in the Washington State Reformatory on the outskirts of Monroe, under conditions that would make regular reporters tear their hair out.

"I never thought it was going to last this long," the 35-year-old Wright, the magazine’s co-founder and editor, said as he sat in the law library at the McNeil Island Corrections Center near Tacoma, where he was transferred earlier this year after eight years in Monroe.

While the magazine’s sometimes scathing tone and communist political bent has earned critics, it has also been hailed for unearthing stories the mainstream media didn’t, for injecting a prisoner perspective into debates about crime and prisons, and for keeping inmates informed about the latest legal developments.

"He is to prisoners’ rights what some people were to feminism or to lesbianism or to gay rights – things people don’t want to think about. He has made an incredible resource … and he did it in prison and in a scholarly way," said Leonard Schroeter, a long-time Seattle attorney and former head of the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wright had no intention of becoming an editor when he shot a man to death in a failed robbery in Federal Way. Then a 21-year-old Army private, Wright claimed self-defense. That argument, he said, lost out to prosecutors who said Wright killed his robbery target. He is serving a sentence for first-degree murder, and won’t get out until at least 2004.

Once inside prison he met Ed Mead, a political radical who served 18 years for taking part in bombings by the George Jackson Brigade, a Seattle terrorist group active in the mid-1970s. Mead, he said, had published some short-lived prisoner magazines earlier. Wright had never been politically active, but prison life changed that.

"It was one of those things where I saw that prisoners are probably the people most affected and directly impacted by criminal justice policies, yet at the same time we’re the parties that literally have no voice in the debate," he said.

The result is what Wright describes as a prison trade publication, much like specialized magazines for doctors or oil executives.

The black-and-white pages, dense with words and almost devoid of pictures, may have little appeal to a wide audience. But while it’s an inch wide, Wright said, it’s a mile deep. A typical issue details recent court rulings relating to prisons and news reports about prison conditions from Israel to Washington state.

The magazine’s impact has been felt outside the small sphere of its readership. Drawing on his position as a prison insider, Wright has broken stories that at times found their way into the broader media. Among those, stories about major companies using prison labor, and a Washington State Patrol investigation that reportedly found racial prejudice among some white Washington prison officials.

The tone is clearly pro-prisoner, referring to prison work programs as "slave labor." Wright is unapologetic about the editorial slant. The magazine is up front about its positions, not making claims of objectivity that often mask pro-prison bias in the press, Wright said.

Mickey Gendler, a Seattle lawyer who handles prisoner-rights cases, including several for Wright, said the magazine offers some of the most comprehensive coverage of legal decisions.

"As a reader there is no doubt that they are slanted in favor of prisoners’ rights. But the slant is obvious, so they’re not hiding anything," he said.

Ida Ballasiotes, a Republican state lawmaker who chairs the House Criminal Justice and Corrections Committee, was a little less complimentary.

"Anything that has to do with who runs corrections or laws is never good," said Ballasiotes, whom Wright frequently targets for criticism in the magazine. "I suppose you would expect that from that kind of publication."

Wright has also locked horns with prison administrators around the country, suing, and often winning, after prisons blocked his magazine from reaching inmates.

Wright’s mild-mannered appearance, his quiet, even voice and thick, plastic-rimmed glasses belie his pit-bull reputation.

"He’s a special person. He’s also a pain in the ass because he has no meaningful life other than this, and he’s insistent about this thing," Schroeter said.

Wright’s tenacity has won the grudging respect of some state prison officials.

"The issues that he did take on, you really had to take a close look at," said Mike Williams, a former associate superintendent at the reformatory who now oversees another branch of the Monroe prison. "Usually you’d have to say he had a better chance of winning an issue than the common jailhouse lawyer."

Still, putting out a magazine in prison is not a simple task.

The first three issues were banned from state prisons. Wright says his cell was ransacked after the first edition, and Mead was sent to solitary confinement on an infraction that was eventually dropped. While the Department of Corrections lifted its blanket ban, it barred the edition with allegations about racism among correction officers.

Wright also can’t get incoming phone calls or e-mail, relying instead on mail or collect calls he makes. The state has barred prisoners from owning computers, so he relies on a typewriter. Each edition involves a back and forth of mail, including article he writes, correspondence from other prisoners, and final drafts of the magazine.

Though the publication has grown, it remains a shoe-string, nonprofit operation. Its dual headquarters are a prison cell and an office in a converted garage in a small Seattle office building, staffed by Fred Markham, a bearded, 63-year-old veteran of Texas and Washington prisons.

Markham said he gave up a good-paying job at an electronics firm to manage the magazine’s day-to-day business several years ago, when Wright pleaded with him that the publication was on the brink of folding.

It’s meant long hours and low pay, Markhamsaid. But after corresponding with Wright and reading Prison Legal News for years, he wasn’t willing to lose one of the few steady voices for prisoners, he said.

"I believed in what was happening," he said.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to

cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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