After 17 years in prison, a murderer–turned–newspaper-editor faces new challenges.
by George Howland Jr.
Consider Paul Wright’s life by the numbers: 38 years old; 17 years in prison for murder; 15 years (all while in prison) as editor of Prison Legal News—currently the only nationally distributed prisoners’ rights journal; co-author/editor of two books, The Celling of America and the award-winning Prison Nation; 14 court victories against prison systems around the country, all affirming the First Amendment rights of prisoners, plus so many injunctions and consent decrees that he can’t recall them all; 11 years of marriage (all while in prison); two children (conceived during the state’s Department of Corrections family visit program); 43 days since he was released from the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe.
So what’s it like being out after 17 years? “Pretty much the only thing that surprised me is that things are really expensive,” he says. “When I go shopping, I have to be with someone I trust so I can ask, ‘Is this a real price? Or is this just a tourist price or something?’”
On his first night out, Tara Herivel, his friend and co-author of Prison Nation, took him to her favorite restaurant, Malay Satay Hut. (Wright’s wife could not be present because she had moved to the East Coast. Wright has since joined her and their children.) Next, Herivel took him on a walk down Broadway, expecting that the crazy scene would awe him. It did not. “Paul is unflappable,” she says. One thing, however, did stop him in his tracks: the produce in the window at Safeway. He just stared and stared, saying, “What a trip,” Herivel recalls.
The American Friends Service Committee’s Bonnie Kerness, a 30-year veteran of the human rights movement and a friend of Wright’s, has been counseling ex-prisoners for many years. She says that despite Wright’s stoicism, the transition to the outside world is incredibly difficult for any ex-con. She says many of the people she has worked with have difficulty with all the stimulation and decisions that are part of everyday life after prison. At the same time, the elation accompanied by release can make people almost manic. All this means it is very hard to be around family and friends. She thinks, however, that Wright’s achievements while in prison will serve him well in civilian life. “He had a vision, and he carried that vision forward. People who have a dream—that forces them to live outside themselves in a healthy manner. That will stand him in good stead, no matter what problems he encounters.”
The first thing Wright hopes to do in order to build his dream is increase the revenue of Prison Legal News by selling more advertising and attracting grants. Ads now account for only around 8 percent of the newspaper’s $150,000 annual income. Unless the revenue increases, he admits, the newspaper cannot really support the decision to have him join a paid staff, bringing its number to four.
Wright was 21 and a private in the Army in 1987 when he killed a man he says was a drug dealer, during a robbery attempt in Federal Way. He pleaded self-defense but was convicted of murder and sent to prison. In 1989, Wright started the paper with another prisoner, Ed Mead, a former member of the George Jackson Brigade, Washington’s version of the radical Weather Underground. The two men shared a revolutionary Marxist perspective and a desire to put out a newspaper that did muckraking reporting on prison conditions and provided legal advice for inmates. The paper started as 10 photocopied pages distributed by hand and has grown to a 40-page monthly with 3,600 subscribers throughout the U.S. and many other countries. Over the years, Prison Legal News has broken a variety of stories picked up by newspapers around the nation. Wright has also been an important tipster for reporters and editors, including me. He considers his biggest journalistic achievement to be jump-starting the policy debate over prison labor. He has exposed the use of prisoners by contractors for Microsoft, Starbucks, Boeing, and former U.S. Rep. Jack Metcalf, among others.
He is also buoyed by the success of his legal fight to promote prisoners’ First Amendment rights around the country. Most of the cases involved battles against prison systems that refused to allow inmates to receive Prison Legal News. Seattle attorney Mickey Gendler has handled a lot of First Amendment cases for the newspaper over the years. “Our government has always tried to restrict the rights of people whose rights are easiest to restrict—poor people, recent immigrants, prisoners. It’s important to draw the lines early, because the erosions spread.” Prison Legal News has only lost one case out of 15 that have gone to trial, says Wright—a case that concerned reprinting a story about neo-Nazi guards that originally ran in Seattle Weekly after a tip from Wright. (Prison Legal News and Seattle Weekly were co-plaintiffs in the case.)
Prison Legal News’ biggest challenge in recent years has been internal. In February 2001, Wright called the police, accusing the paper’s business manager, Fred Markham, of stealing more $19,000. Last year, Markham entered an Alford plea—no admission of guilt but acknowledging the likelihood of conviction—to first-degree theft.
The newspaper’s co-founder, Mead, and Dan Pens, the co-editor at the time, strongly disagreed on principle with Wright’s decision to involve the authorities. “I told Paul, ‘If you rat on Fred, I’ll never speak to you again,’” says Mead. An unapologetic Wright says, “We had a fiduciary duty to our readers and supporters.”
After Wright called the police, Pens resigned and made a variety of accusations against his former partner, ranging from ideological errors to criminal behavior. Wright denies them all. Wright and his board have hired a new executive director and instituted strict financial safeguards. The paper weathered the crisis and only missed one issue. “In all respects, we are a lot stronger now,” say Wright.
Wright will need that strength if for nothing else to care for his two young sons, aged 6 and 4. He asked the 4-year-old if the boy liked having him around all the time now. His son said he preferred visiting his father in a trailer on the grounds of Monroe’s Reformatory because they got to play all day long. Now he must share his father with all the distractions of the outside world. “I wonder where they get all the energy,” says Wright, laughing. “My wife’s theory is that they take it from their parents.”