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‘Sure, People Are Talking About Prison Reform, but They Aren’t Actually Doing Anything.’

Inmate-turned-journalist Paul Wright on what he’s learned in his 25 years covering the prison system.

In 1987, 21-year-old Paul Wright entered a maximum-security prison in Washington state for first-degree murder. Wright, then a military police officer, was incarcerated after he attempted to rob a cocaine dealer by the name of Curtis Smith. During the hold-up, Smith pulled his own gun, and Wright shot first. Wright unsuccessfully claimed self-defense in court and spent the next 17 years in prison. He was released in 2003. Wright used much of his time behind bars reporting and litigating for a monthly magazine about the criminal system that he co-founded called Prison Legal News. The first issue was published in May of 1990, and PLN is now approaching its 25th anniversary. The magazine has evolved since its early days as a 10-page newsletter with fewer than 100 prospective subscribers; it’s now 64 pages with 7,000 subscribers (and more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors to its website.) Wright has also written three books and leads the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit organization sustained, in part, by attorney’s fees and damages from its prisoner-rights litigation. He spoke with The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo by phone about his past, the prison reform movement, and changes in America’s prison system since he first started reporting on it a quarter-century ago.

Paul Wright co-founded Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine, in 1990.

When you started writing about incarceration, there were about 1.2 million people in prison or jail in the U.S. Now, that figure is about 2.5 million. Besides the explosion in the prison population, what other changes have you watched happen?

Probably one of the bigger things has been the rise of solitary confinement. When we first started, there were very few so-called “super max” prisons that were designed specifically with isolation in mind. Through the ’90s, we saw the construction of dozens of super max prisons that were designed from the get-go for the purpose of destroying people psychologically, emotionally, and mentally.

It’s been said that solitary is a more complicated issue than some would paint it. What should prison administrators do if there is someone threatening guards and inmates within the prison?

The party line of prison officials is that they need solitary supposedly for people that are too dangerous, but then they don’t define what dangerous is. The reality is, the people put in solitary are often the mentally ill, the jailhouse lawyers, and the people that just aren’t submissive enough.

I spent time in all of Washington’s solitary units. There, they call them intensive management units, so I guess I needed intensive management. That’s in the context that I had no history of institutional violence, no history of escape attempts or anything like that. The pretext for my being placed there ranged from having subversive literature in my cell, to having too many envelopes, to filing grievances.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about solitary, it went from housing a tiny percentage of the prison population to housing on any given day 6 to 7 percent of the prison population, or well over 100,000 people. They spent billions of dollars building these super max prisons, so basically they have to fill them, and they have filled them.

What was the longest amount of time you spent in solitary?

Around a month, and that’s usually because my family and attorneys were advocating for me to make sure I didn’t languish there too long.

At one point, I was in a solitary unit in Clallam Bay [Correctional Center] for filing a grievance, and the place was just refrigerated. I was in an orange jumpsuit and was literally freezing; I could see my breath. So I bang on the door to get the guards to give me another blanket, and they wouldn’t give me one. I said, “OK, I want to file an emergency grievance. I want to talk to the lieutenant.” So I do that, and then a guard comes back and he’s telling me the thermostat says it’s 70 degrees, and he was wearing three layers of clothes.

It was one of those things where I thought, wow I’ve really messed up my life to the point that I’m in a position where people have this degree of control over me.

Did you ever speak to Curtis Smith’s family or reach out to them?

No, I haven’t reached out to them. I’m always open, and I figure I’m easy to find if anyone ever wants to reach out to me. I realize that I killed a human being, and it was a terrible thing to do. I apologized to them in court at my sentencing. I was sincere about it then, and I’m sincere about it now.

Do you think going to prison has changed who you are?

I don’t really know if prison changes people. I mean, it can change behavior to an extent, but one of the things that had more of an impact on me than going to prison for 17 years was being in the military for three and a half years. That changed a lot of my thinking, because when you’re in the military, you’re basically trained to kill, and part of that is really dehumanizing others so you no longer see them as people.

Paul Wright in 2012.

A big part of your work is done through the Human Rights Defense Center’s lawsuits against prison systems around the country. What do you have pending right now?

Our focus at HRDC has been on communications, and we do a lot with mail censorship. I can say that but for HRDC litigation, around 700,000 prisoners in a whole bunch of different states and jails around the country would not be getting the books, magazines and letter correspondence they are now getting. So that’s had a huge impact.

We’ve got about 15 lawsuits on file right now. We have challenges to postcard-only policies in California, Michigan and Tennessee, and we just wrapped up similar litigation in California, Florida, Georgia, Washington, and Texas. Statewide prison bans on PLN have also been overturned in nine other states, and we have pending lawsuits over PLN censorship pending in Florida and Nevada.

Your organization has employed other tactics, besides lawsuits, to try and influence reform. Most recently, Alex Friedmann, managing editor of PLN and associate director of the Human Rights Defense Center, introduced a shareholder resolution to GEO Group to require the company spend 5 percent of its profits on programs that reduce recidivism, which the company rejected. (GEO Group is the nation’s second largest private prison operator, and Friedmann owns a small amount of stock in the corporation.) What role does activism play in your organization, which you’ve said is primarily focused on journalism?

We never wanted to be an organization that just reports news that people read and say, “Wow, that’s really too bad.” Rather, we report news with a goal that things are going to change for the better. With GEO Group, their financial interest is tied to having prisoners in their facilities for a long time and once they get out making sure they come back. It would be a bad business model for them to have low recidivism. We want to highlight that basic conflict of interest.

We’ve also done a lot of work to expose the price gouging of phone calls by prison systems and jails. A petition to change that had been languishing on the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) docket since 2003. We started our Prison Phone Justice Campaign in 2011, where we started mobilizing people to write the FCC and get them to do something, and they finally did. [In 2013, the FCC restricted phone rates to a cost between 21 and 25 cents a minute for interstate calls, and in 2014, proposed similar rules for intrastate calls.]

What do most prisons forbid or allow in terms of the news media? And what’s the rationale?

Most news media is generally allowed into prisons, as long as it isn't critical of prison officials or doesn't touch on minority religious or political views. It tends to be jails that have blanket bans on all media.

The rationale for PLN being censored has varied, and it’s often framed in terms of security. In Texas, they claimed we were encouraging deviant sexual behavior when we reported on rape in prison.

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What kind of access to the media do you think prisoners should have?

The only things I think the government has a legitimate censorship interest in is stuff about escapes from prison, how to make improvised weapons, and child pornography. It’s a very narrow category.

There’s also no technical reason why prisoners can’t have access to the Internet. Washington state was one of the few states that allowed prisoners to have computers in their cells, and I was in the program. It didn’t cost taxpayers anything, but of course, it was eliminated. In 1990, six prison systems allowed prisoners to have computers in their cells. By the year 2000, none of them did.

It seems like mass incarceration is on the radar of a lot of politicians and the public, and some states have even lowered their prison populations. You have the conservative Right on Crime group advocating for change, and then there are the calls for reform from Attorney General Eric Holder, and others. Does any of that give you hope about the future despite your observation that things have only worsened?

Sure, people are talking, but they aren’t actually doing anything.

The Obama administration has pledged to be more open and transparent, and yet, as someone who runs an organization that has Freedom of Information litigation pending against the Department of Justice, I can tell you that nothing has changed under this administration.

You and I can talk about space exploration and stuff, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to build a rocket to go to Mars.

Is there anything that’s been championed as a change or reform that perhaps isn’t what it’s chalked up to be?

One of the most overrated and modest reforms of the past 10 years is the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Basically, it’s a data collection act that relies on self-reporting from self-interested agencies and it doesn’t really change anything. From all the press that’s been spilled on it, one would think it was a lot more concrete than it is.

Another one in terms of sad and depressing is Congress’ reducing the crack-cocaine to powder-cocaine disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. I guess a little less injustice is better than a little more injustice, or something like that.

You must receive a lot of letters from people who are incarcerated and read PLN. What do they want you to write more about?

Once you get outside of letters saying, “I shouldn’t be here” or “I didn’t get a fair trial,” the next biggest thing is inadequate medical care. And we get those types of letters from all 50 states, so it’s not like prisoners in certain states feel the health care is sufficient.

Do you think anything has improved since you started PLN?

One heartening change has been the number of states that have repealed the death penalty, along with the Supreme Court steadily whittling around the categories of people eligible for the death penalty. I’m cautiously optimistic, but I think that probably within the next 15 to 20 years we’ll see the end of the judicial death penalty in this country. That’s the good news. The bad news is it’s been totally supplanted by the sentence of death by incarceration.

But just to give you an idea of how things are going, one of our paralegals in Seattle went to a jail in eastern Washington where she said suicidal prisoners are being chained in a hallway with no mental health treatment.

One of the things I used to think about is if I were in prison in North Korea or Cuba, the American government would care a lot about what’s happening to me. But alas, I was in Washington state, so no one in a position of power or authority cared how I was being treated.

Well, some people’s response to that would be: Then don’t commit crime. Prison isn’t supposed to be fun.

Yeah, and it wasn’t fun, so I guess they get their wish.

The thing is, a lot of people commit crimes, and they don’t go to prison, and it has less to do with what you do than your financial status and your class status in society. After I had been in prison for a while, I realized I hadn’t met any rich people. And it’s not that rich people don’t kill or rape people, they just, as a general rule, don’t go to prison for it. If we had a system of justice where everyone who commits a crime is punished equally, I’d be fine with that. But that’s not the case.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In an earlier version of this story, suicidal inmates at a Washington facility were incorrectly described as being naked and chained in a hallway. They were not naked.