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 communic