Human Rights Defense Center x KidsMates
By Joshua Martoma, Age 15
Today, KidsMates is interviewing Paul Wright, founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC) and the editor of Prison Legal News (PLN), from his virtual shangri-la in sunny Florida. HRDC publishes a monthly magazine that provides in-depth and essential knowledge about incarcerated peoples' rights, related court rulings, and other news affecting criminal justice. HRDC's groundbreaking coverage of racial and socioeconomic disparities in our criminal justice system, including those affecting the children of incarcerated parents, is some of the most provocative coverage to date. HRDC has reported extensively on misconduct and abuse by prison staff, settlements and verdicts against prison facilities, and prison reform legislation. The newsletter is the longest-running publication by and for current and former incarcerated individuals.
Of course, there is no HRDC without Paul Wright! Paul conceptualized and created the idea for an educational newsletter by an incarcerated person from his own cell over 30 years ago. Not content to let his life be defined by a conviction, Paul worked relentlessly to grow his 10-page, hand-typed newsletter into a 72-page multimedia, monthly publication. His legal news site reaches over a quarter million global readers every month. Paul also has written extensively in his 30 years of coverage on prisons and jails with over 80 articles and 3 prison anthologies credited to his name. We’re lucky to have Paul here as our guest today and can’t wait to learn what he has to say.
Paul: Hi Joshua.
Joshua: Hi, Paul. Thanks for joining KidsMates today. Can you tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and Prison Legal News?
Paul: Well, the nutshell version is: I went to prison in 1987 at the age of 21. I'd been sentenced to 25 years and 4 months in prison for killing a drug dealer during an armed robbery. While I was in prison, I became interested in prison rights issues and conditions of confinement. I also started writing in 1990, with another prisoner named Ed Mead. I started the magazine, Prison Legal News. At the time in 1990, it wasn't really a magazine like it is now. It was a 10-page newsletter, and it was hand-typed. Ed typed 5 pages in his prison cell, and I typed 5 pages in my prison cell. We sent them to an outside volunteer who then took the magazine (or rather the pages), photocopied them, and sent them to our fledgling mailing list. After our first year, we graduated to desktop publishing, and both our mailing list and magazine slowly grew. By the mid-nineties, we had more subscribers in California than we did in Washington state, and we basically became a national magazine. When we started Prison Legal News in 1990, there were over 50 prison news publications around the country. California alone had 6 back then. As we started rolling, everyone else started falling by the wayside, and so, by the end of the nineties, we were one of the only publications left. The magazine slowly grew, and we now have around 72 pages, 9000 paid subscribers, and 16 paid full-time employees with offices in Florida, as well as Seattle and Washington DC. In addition to PLN, we publish another magazine called Criminal Legal News (CLN); we have a litigation project, and we also do advocacy on behalf of prisoners and their families (eg. the prison phone justice campaign).
Joshua: KidsMates readers love hearing about organizations that advocate for children of incarcerated parents, so your answer really resonates with us. What would you say is the most important thing you or the Human Rights Defense Center has done in the last year for children or parents or families facing incarceration?
Paul: Probably the biggest impact we've had is our work around the prison telecommunications issues. We've been consistent advocates of the Federal Communications Commission seeking lower affordable phone rates for prisoners and their families, and that's probably our biggest thing that impacts families. Whether it's through telephone, through visitation, or letter writing, having communication between prisoners and their family members is probably the most important issue. We've also done a variety of lawsuits challenging prison (mostly jail) attempts to cut off prisoners from access to letters from their loved ones. We've been advocating on behalf of prisoners and their families around affordable phone rates since 1992. In 2014, we achieved major victories in the FCC capping the cost of prison phone calls. By our calculation, our advocacy efforts have saved prisoners and their families around $2-3 million a year in phone costs that they would have otherwise paid.
Joshua: That's amazing! As a Worth Rises Fellow, I've learned how crippling exorbitant phone charges can be for families with an incarcerated family member. On a different note, is there anything else you'd like to share about your other projects?
Paul: Well, I think one of the important things is that Prison Legal News is really for everyone. I think that a lot of people have the notion that Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News are just for people in prison or their family members; that's not true. The Legal News website gets over a quarter million visitors every month from people around the world, and we have a wide variety of information from 30 years of coverage of prisons and jails. I think that there's a lot to be learned about what's happening just from our websites and from our magazines, and I think that people who actually read our publications are usually surprised about both the information and the depth of the information that we cover, and also how well written our publications are done. I think people come into this with very low expectations and are usually pleasantly surprised!
Joshua: So much good information, and I have so many more questions, so let’s cover a few more. What do you want the world to know about children or families dealing with incarceration?
Paul: I think there's a lot of things. I say this as someone who went to prison when I was 21 years old, got married while I was in prison, and had children while I was in prison. My oldest son Carl was born in 1997 and my youngest son Felix was born in 1999. I was released from prison in 2003 when they were still relatively small. I think it's really critical to understand how important contact is between parents and their children both for the parents and also for the children. No one would say that children should be restricted from having access to communicate with their parents, yet in prison and jail, it's almost taken as a matter of faith that they should not have access or contact with their parents. I think that one of the things that we've let happen in this country over the last 40 years is that we've built literally thousands of prisons far from the urban areas that most prisoners’ families live in. That bad policy decision is compounded by limited visitation, terrible visiting conditions, and then on top of that, making telephone communications both really expensive and low quality. All these policy decisions being made by lawmakers and by prison officials kind of work together to make it very difficult for prisoners to communicate with their families. A lot of research has shown that literally, the more contact families have, the lower recidivism rates. On the flip side, the more contact the children have with their parents, the more stable the children feel. Not many facilities in the United States really facilitate or encourage communication between prisoners or their children.
Joshua: Yes, definitely. I know how important calls and visits were for me and my dad. My next question is what or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and why?
Paul: Oh gosh. I'd say what influences my thoughts for me was literally going to prison and being there for a long time. I had many years to think about our prisons and jails and everything else. I’d say for me that's probably the biggest impact. Before I went to prison I would say that I considered myself to be reasonably well informed, but I knew very little about the reality of the American prison and jail system. Going to prison kind of got me into the deep end. While I was incarcerated, I read a lot about prisons and jails. I just do it online now. When I started PLN, I started with the belief that if the American public knew what was happening in prisons and jails they would be outraged and would demand change and reform. Thirty years later that view has not changed. I also think that prison officials realize it too because if they disagreed, they wouldn't try as hard to cover up what actually happens in prisons and jails.
Joshua: Paul, what tip(s) would you give to children coping with the adversity of having a currently incarcerated family member?
Paul: I think the thing to keep in mind is to keep a positive outlook and work with what you have. Think about communicating with your loved ones in prison as best you can. I think it's unfortunate that we live in a country where hedge funds and their government collaborators are looking to monetize and financially exploit the communications between parents and their children. However, it's important to note that we all have voices, and we're able to effectuate change. All of us have our own stories that are compelling and the things that we’re experiencing as children of incarcerated parents, but we must remember that a lot of these things don’t have to be the way it is. These are decisions being made by government officials or by policymakers. Especially with children, I think there's the idea that grownups are the only ones that can make a change. I tell you, one thing is letting people know that there's a problem and changing what needs to be changed.
Joshua: Well said, Paul. My last question is more general... If you're giving one last piece of advice for kids about how to make a difference, what would you say?
Paul: Don't underestimate yourself. The government of this country and a lot of people in positions of power tell children that you're just one person; you can't change things. When I was in prison, I remember a prison guard telling me that I was the only one complaining out of one thousand inmates. I'd be like, "okay so what does that have to do with anything?" I think if you look through history, the biggest social movements all start with a couple of people. I don't think you should underestimate the impact that you can have as an individual. The number of children with an incarcerated parent could fill a city the size of Houston. I think it's one thing to say that I've committed a crime and the government wants to punish me, but if my children haven't committed a crime, why are you punishing them? And I think that one of the things to point out is that children are not and should never be the collateral damage of our criminal justice system.
Joshua: We’ve covered a lot of great ground today, but we just touched on the tip of the iceberg of your work!
Paul: Well, anyone interested in learning more can visit our website Prison Legal News.
Joshua: Paul, thank you very much for sharing!
(After our interview, Paul referenced another great resource, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated.)