The Front Line of the US Censorship Battle is Behind Bars

The Front Line of the US Censorship Battle is Behind Bars

In our ongoing quest to trace the outline of the phrase "civic media," we began the Center for Civic Media's 2012 lunch series with Paul Wright, Editor and Cofounder of Prison Legal News, and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the non-profit umbrella which publishes PLN.

PLN operates in a unique media environment, where the very act of distributing their magazine to their customers might first require winning a lawsuit. You see, their primary audience is prisoners themselves. Prison Legal News is the longest-running publication put together with the help of people who are incarcerated, and since its first issue in 1990, it has become a critical resource for discussing issues facing these populations. It's an independent, monthly magazine that reviews and analyzes prisoner rights, court rulings and news about prison issues. PLN focuses on state and federal US prisons, as well as some international coverage. Paul himself has become a distinguished advocate on behalf of the United States's population. Asked whether we can blog his talk, Paul responds, "Secrecy is the antithesis of publishing."

From Newsletter to National Publication
Prison Legal News started as a newsletter, in 1990, covering only Washington state's prisons. It was 10 pages and hand-typed for 75 subscribers. They launched into the publishing world with a $50 budget. The organization was completely volunteer-run until 1996. The first run of 6 issues ended up becoming a 22-year, 224-issue run (and still going). Some of their earliest subscribers are still with them: a great sign for the publications' longevity, but a less great reflection of these subscribers' sentences.

Their perseverance has paid off: In 1990, there were 30 or 40 prisoners' rights news publications, but many have since ceased publishing. Prison Legal News has expanded its coverage as its subscriber base expanded. At one point they realized they had more subscribers in California than in Washington, and that they had graduated to a national publication. Yet Paul considers himself one of the few people in print publishing these days who welcomes competition. He wishes there were other publications and institutions engaged in this work.

Prison Legal News is not light reading - there's no horoscope, no advice column, just hard news and information. But that's what their customers want. An annual reader survey draws a 30-40% reader survey response (versus ~1% response rate found with traditional publications), and the feedback is consistently asking for more useful information rather than lighter fare. There was a publication in the 1990s called Prison Life, which wrote about prison life and the prison experience, and they were somehow surprised when they were unsuccessful, because prisoners would rather not read about this in their leisure time.

An expansion into book titles has focused on self-help and non-fiction reference books for prisoners, especially titles that aren't viable for traditional book publishers. Paul mentions books including How to File a Lawsuit and Win, and books on Hepatitis C (a dangerous health threat within the incarcerated population). There's great interest in books on health, including Our Bodies, Ourselves, which Paul notes has been banned in some prison systems. They also provide "radical critiques of the criminal justice system", including edited volumes titled The Celling of America, Prison Nation and Prison Profiteers. Paul notes that the books reach a different audience than the magazine, that there are people who prefer reading the long form of arguments.

Who Reads Prison News
Prison Legal News is a niche publication. It's not trying to reach the whole incarcerated population of the US. It's targeting activists and lifers interested in improving prisons. "We want to reach the activists, the 1% of people who make change. If you get the 1%, the other 99% will follow." Men are 95% of the US prison population, and an even higher percentage of PLN's readership. Paul attributes this to the fact that women generally receive shorter sentences, and their subscribers tend to have long sentences ahead of them. Paul has found that it's the people who are in prison for a long period of time that make things happen. These are the lifers, the ones filing the lawsuits and organizing other prisoners. These are people who have accepted that prison is their life now, and get about working to do something to imrpove it.

There are around 7,000 subscribers to the print population, but the reach is much broader. Reader surveys suggest that copies reach more than 10 prisoners each - Paul estimates a readership of 80-90,000 readers. Additionally, the website gets around 100,000 visitors per month. The subscriber base includes judges, court officers, lawyers, jouralists and academics, including Noam Chomsky, who Paul tells us proudly was one of the first subscribers. All the big investment banks subscribe, Paul tells us, because they follow news on the private prison industry. "I was happy when Lehman Brothers went under, but we lost a subscriber." Lehman Brothers had been one of the biggest bankrollers of the private prison industry, so it was a happy day when they went down.

Publication Litigation
A big focus these days is making sure the target audience in prisons can actually receive the magazine. This requires extensive litigation. Prison Legal News has obtained consent decrees in nine states, ordering state prisons to deliver the magazine. They're currently litigating in New York and Florida to enable subscribers to receive their publication, both the magazine and the books they publish.

Almost every state's prison system has censored and banned their magazine at one point or another, Paul tells us. The organization has won nine lawsuits, receiving consent decrees that order state prison systems to deliver the publications. The bans are generally pretextual. They're bans based on postal rates used to deliver magazines, or whether prisoners are allowed to pay for the magazine from their trust accounts. Sometimes there are arbitrary blocks on sending publications to prisoners in certain types of custody. In Washington, PLN discovered they needed to become an "approved vendor" and had a very difficult time figuring out "who's brother-in-law we had to work with" to gain "approved vendor" status.

It's not just PLN getting banned. In one case, in South Carolina, the ACLU had to sue when a prison banned all books except the Bible. These pretextual excuses can get pretty absurd - Paul is currently facing an argument that the staples used to bind the magazine might be used as dangerous weapons. While we think it's funny, these are the issues PLN is forced to litigate (marshal the resources to sue the government, and win). "Think of every magazine held together by staples, delivered by mail. TIME, Newsweek. We're the only publisher in America who routinely challenges this censorship."

Many of these rules are designed to prevent prisoners from having material to read, far beyond PLN's magazine. It would help if other American publishers would join in the fight to ensure publications are able to reach prison populations. When an Indiana judge upheld a ban on gay publications Out and The Advocate, Paul asked the publishers to file suit, because it would stand up better in court than a suit from a prisoner. But publishers aren't seeking the prison population: "They tell us that they're not part of our targeted advertising demographic." For PLN, the core audience IS prisoners, and there's no point in publishing if the core audience can't get it. In recognition of this, they realized that funding staff attorney positions was a priority.

Ethan Zuckerman notes that some critics of PLN have argued that it's as much litigation platform as it is a publication. Paul counters that "Our initial goal was always just to publish the magazine. But we got to to the point where we're just consuming ever greater amounts of organizational resources just getting the magazine into prisons." Paul estimates that he can spend as much as 40% of his time focusing on being able to distribute the publication, rather than producing and editing it. "The Editor should be worried about being Editor, not worrying about why one prison system or another is censoring content." For there to be any litigation, the government has to illegally censor the magazine, then PLN has to sue them, and then they have to win. "If you don't like the consequences, don't break the law," Paul says.

Isolation from Society
Restrictions on what can be sent in and out of prison harm PLN in another way: it makes it very hard to hear from the incarcerated. In some prisons, prisoners can no longer send or receive information beyond what fits on a postcard. Other layers of draconian restriction include rules that this postcard communication has to be in ink, can't use a label, etc. These mechanisms tend to be arbitrary and are designed, Paul argues, to prevent prisoners from having communication to and from the outside world. His organization has challenged a couple of these successfully, with a couple more pending. Paul tells us that they are trying to nip this trend in the bud before it gets entrenched.

"Part of the goal is to get prisoners information. But conversely, we want to hear from them." The bulk of the magazine's content is provided by contributing writers, who are mostly prisoners, some of whom have been working with PLN for over a decade. In the hopes of ensuring widespread distribution of the information, PLN doesn't demand exclusive publishing rights - and people are free to copy and disseminate the information.

(This is an area of close overlap with one of the Center for Civic Media's projects, Between the Bars. BTB is a blogging platform for prisoners that gets around the lack of internet access by scanning and publishing letters to a blog, and then mailing comments back to the authors on postcards. In addition to helping the incarcerated publish to the web, it helps the rest of the US population by ensuring that we are able to hear from these voices, who comprise 1% of our entire populace.)

Prison News Online
The internet has greatly improved the visibility of Prison Legal News. Paul tells us he conducts 3-4 interviews a week about the publication and the issues it raises. He's fluent in Spanish and notes that there's a great deal of interest in these issues from programs in Colombia and Venezuela. One of his associate gives interviews in Russian media, which seems to have an endless appetite for stories about the US prison system. Some have observed, he tells us, that the US prison system must be pretty bad when the Russians enjoy making fun of it.

The online presence of the magazine has allowed them to build a publication library online, with over 6,000 documents available in their Brief Bank. "We've got the biggest, and I would say, the best, repository of prison documents online." As a result, PLN generally shows up in Google's first page for prison-related queries, except sometimes when Prison Break program is on TV...

At the same time, few prisoners have access to the web from their cell. Six prison systems allowed web access in 1990, but by 2000, that number was zero. Paul notes that not one of the prisoners who took part in a program to learn to use computers receded.

Prisons can be a bit of a timeless place, says Paul, where the equipment you see is 50-60 years old. Their print publishing business still thrives here (their advertising levels for the print magazine are actually going up), and web publishing is almost non-existent. PLN hasn't figured out making money online, like other publishers. Their content performs poorly with online advertising. On their site, the news content is free, legal content is paid, and these fees cover basic staff time put into the site. Advertising and subscription income and book distribution bring in about the same amount. Payroll is the biggest expense. They get some foundation funding and some donations, and when all of this revenue is cobbled together, it's enough to move forward.

Prisoners' Most Pressing Concerns


Ethan asks Paul what are the key issues discussed in the publication. Paul explains that the number one concern for the past 15 years has been inadequate medical care. PLN receives 500-800 pieces of mail a week, and 40-60% of the mail - and 40-60% of the magazine's coverage - focuses on access to medical care, including access to mental health treatment. Other key issues include excessive force, long-term isolation, restrictions on civil liberties (censorship, religious freedom, barriers to marriage) and concerns about oveall conditions of confinement (exposure to heat and cold, asbestos, bad plumbing.) This last category is less prominent than you might expect. but that's a result of a boom in prison construction. "The good news of the US sinking $1 trillion into prisons in the last ten years is that we have a lot of new prisons."

Pointing to the collection he edited, Prison Profiteers, Paul notes that he took a different approach to analyzing the prison industry. Most of the books on the topic focus on what's wrong with the criminal justice system and who is harmed. Instead, he took a new angle and looked at all of the people who are doing really well off of prisons, and benefitting from mass incarceration. "It's tough to get any type of positive reform when you have an industry that employs close to 1 million people whose livelihood depends on locking people up. As Upton Sinclar noted, 'It's hard to make a man understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.'" "Mass incarceration is good news for a lot of people," Paul continues, "it just depends which end of the stick you're on."

Asked what Paul is most proud of in this work, he points to the longevity of the project. "I'm 46 now and I've figured out that the people who succeed aren't necessarily the smartest ones - there's a lot to be said for just sticking with something, and everything else just falls away." "Our reach, too. Our goal was never to be a mass circulation magazine. We've succeeded in our primary goal of letting activists and reformers around the country have a source of timely information they can rely on in their struggle for human rights for American prisoners. In 252 issues, we've only had to print one correction where we made the mistake. We've never had to retract a story, unlike the New York Times. And we're reliable. People disagree with us, but not about the facts we cover. And I'm proud of how [our content has] held up over time, when I go back and look at issues from the 1990s."

"In this context, surviving at all is good, and in fact we've been able to grow under very adverse circumstances. My career has been one long, fighting retreat."

The Structural Role of Incarceration in the United States

Asked whether he was surprised that the US prison population has grown 250%, Paul cites Mills Christie, and says that with mass incarceration, there is no natural limit on how far it can grow. There have been some dips, but if you look at the overall number of people locked up in jail across the country, the numbers are still growing. The growth is slow, but steady. "Prisons have been used as tools of economic development in this country, especially in poor, rural, white areas of this country, and these communities have come to rely on these jobs."

Paul's views have evolved over time, starting as a prison labor rights activist. In this role, he covered prison slave labor, where he saw everything from a congressman using prisoners as telemarketers to call people about a "tough on crime" campaign platform, to seeing brands like Microsoft, Eddie Bauer, Starbucks, and Nintendo use hardened criminals to package software and childrens' toys. He's intrigued by criminologist Bruce Western's study of the impact of mass incarceration on labor markets. The theory goes that mass imprisonment takes a postinudstrial population that's otherwise unemployable in the US, and puts them in prison. Paul takes it one step further: You've got 2.5 million people in prison who would otherwise be unemployed, and then another one million directly employed watching over them. When you look at it this way, it's tempting to see mass imprisonment as a massive jobs program, and also a tool of social stability. Paul notes that there have been no urban uprisings since 1992, while European policies are limited by fears of riots in the streets.

Asked how long this can continue, Paul cites Norwegian criminologist Thorolfur Matthiasson, who is famous for saying that "Repressive systems appear to be stable, right up until they collapse." Paul originally got his degree in Soviet Studies from the University of Maryland in 1987, and no one he took classes witih predicted that the USSR would collapase within 3 years. Part of the reason, he feels, is that there was a lot of money and fame to be had for people propagating the viewpoint that the Soviets are nine feet tall, and a menace. When these systems do collapse, it seems to be from mismanagement from above, from their own weight, rather than from below.
For now, our system of mass incaraceration seems to be going strong.

Education in Prisons
Americans inherently understand that education is one of the greatest mechanisms for self-improvement and social mobility. And yet in prisons, there are few opportunities to gain an education. President Clinton eliminated Pell grants for prisoners in the mid-1990s, and most of the states followed that lead. There are some small programs, like the Bard College Prison Initiative in New York, where prisoners can get a B.A. There's also the Sam Quentin Prison University Project. There are privately funded, small programs.

Paul believes that there is not only a clear underclass in the US, but that what makes the US unique is that we actually spend a lot of time and money helping people stay poor and uneducated. This is why PLN needs to sue the jails that are banning magazines. When you think about publishing in the terms of what it means to civilization, where we write things down to share our collective experience, and then a jail says they're going to ban this activity, what does that say about our society? The prisons think it's a great policy. And it's easier for them, just like it was easier not to let slaves read and write. Elected officials are also pretty proud of these policies throwing up hurdles to prisoners being able to read and write. They brag about it, and defend it in court.

The Darkest Area of Government?


PLN has also had to sue to get access to basic public records. In one case, they're still trying to get public documents from 2003. They win every ruling along the way, it just takes time and money.

Paul says that prisons and jails are probably the least transparent area of American government, with the exception of the National Security establishment, but even that sector leaks more information than the prisons or jails. We seem to have some sense of public knowledge in these areas.

Staying Human
The acts of reading and writing are core to helping prisoners maintain their humanity, especially when everything else in these punitive systems is working to degrade that humanity. A publication like PLN lets prisoners connect with others, when the rest of the system is designed to isolate and alienate.

Paul is wary of the dehumanization that takes place before genocides and in prisons. We lose sight of the people in prison. We need to keep in mind that they're someone's father, someone's son, regardless of what they've done. When someone's been murdered in a prison, it's almost always that person's mother who calls PLN.

Paul closes his presentation, and notes that he's now 264 issues into this project, and that since 1990, "everything to do with the criminal justice system, by objective or subjective standard, has gotten worse."

This post was written with Ethan Zuckerman. For more information about PLN, see their Frequently Asked Questions and get in touch.