A longer version of this post first appeared on MIT’s Center for Civic Media blog.

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 co-founder of Prison Legal News, and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the non-profit umbrella which publishes PLN.

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PLN operates in a unique media environment, where the very act of distributing a magazine to their customers might first require winning a lawsuit. You see, their primary audience is made up of 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 U.S. prisons, as well as some international coverage. Paul himself has become a distinguished advocate on behalf of the U.S. population. Asked whether we could blog his talk, Paul responded, “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. It launched into the publishing world with a $50 budget. The organization was completely volunteer-run until 1996. The first run of six 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 publication’s longevity, but a less great reflection of these subscribers’ sentences.

PLN’s 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, 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 covered 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 U.S. It’s targeting activists and lifers interested in improving prisons. Paul said they want to reach the activists, the 1% of people who make change. Men are 95% of the U.S. prison population, and make up a higher percentage of PLN’s readership compared with women. Paul attributed 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 who are working to do something to improve it.

There are around 7,000 subscribers to the print publication, but the reach is much broader. Reader surveys suggest that copies reach more than 10 prisoners each — Paul estimates a readership of 80,000-90,000 readers. Additionally, the website gets around 100,000 visitors per month. The subscriber base includes judges, court officers, lawyers, journalists and academics, including Noam Chomsky, who Paul told us proudly was one of the first subscribers. All the big investment banks subscribe, Paul told us, because they follow news on the private prison industry. “I was happy when Lehman Brothers went under, but we lost a subscriber,” he said. 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. PLN is 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 the magazine at one point or another, Paul told 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, Paul said.

It’s not just PLN getting banned. In one case, in South Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union 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,” he said.

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,” he said. 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.

I noted that some critics of PLN have argued that it’s as much a litigation platform as it is a publication. Paul countered 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 estimated 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 (an) editor, not worrying about why one prison system or another is censoring content,” he said. For there to be any litigation, the government has to illegally censor the magazine, then PLN has to sue, and then they have to win. “If you don’t like the consequences, don’t break the law,” Paul said.

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 postcard communication has to be in ink, can’t use a label, etc. These mechanisms tend to be arbitrary and are designed, Paul argued, 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 told 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,” he said. 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 U.S. 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 told us he conducts 3-4 interviews a week about the publication and the issues it raises. He’s fluent in Spanish and noted 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 U.S. prison system. Some have observed that the U.S. prison system must be pretty bad when the Russians enjoy making fun of it.

The online presence of the magazine has allowed PLN to build a publication library online, with more than 6,000 documents available in its Brief Bank. “We’ve got the biggest, and I would say, the best, repository of prison documents online,” Paul said. As a result, PLN generally shows up in Google’s first page for prison-related queries, except sometimes when the “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 noted 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, said Paul, where the equipment you see is 50-60 years old. PLN’s print publishing business still thrives here (advertising levels for the print magazine are actually going up), and web publishing is almost nonexistent. PLN hasn’t figured out how to make money online, like other publishers. Its content performs poorly with online advertising. On the 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 donations, and when all of this revenue is cobbled together, it’s enough to move forward.

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 closed his presentation by noting 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, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. For more information about PLN, see their Frequently Asked Questions and get in touch.