Justice Watch: Prison Legal News Is Filing, Winning Federal Lawsuits

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Paul Wright, executive director, Lance Weber, General Counsel.Human Rights Defense Center, Lake Worth
Paul Wright, executive director, Lance Weber, General Counsel.Human Rights Defense Center, Lake Worth

The October issue of Prison Legal News contained one story entitled, "How many inmate deaths is too many?"

Another article addressed a Justice Department investigation into widespread sexual abuse in Alabama women's prisons by male guards, while another took a look at what led to a mentally ill prisoner in Illinois to die on a hunger strike.

Sprinkled throughout the edition were advertisements offering, for instance, the newest edition of "The Prisoner's Self-Help Litigation Manual."

Every issue of Prison Legal News contains news inmates can use, but many jails and some prisons don't want them to have it.

Paul Wright, who started the publication from his Washington state jail cell in the 1990s, has fought back, filing dozens of lawsuits against state and counties across the country in the last decade. He has recently moved operations from Vermont to Lake Worth.

Wright is the founder and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center and editor of Prison Legal News. He challenges corrections policies keeping out his publication and other types of correspondence—even letters from family and friends.

Wright served 17 years in prison after being convicted of killing a man in the robbery of a cocaine dealer when he was 21. By the time he was released in 2003, Prison Legal News was more than a decade old and had broken numerous stories about inmate exploitation.

The magazine and its parent, Human Rights Defense Center, filed its latest legal salvo last week, a federal complaint against St. Lucie County Sheriff Kenneth J. Mascara.

'unconstitutional'

The lawsuit challenges a department policy requiring all incoming mail to be on postcards—a get-tough-on-criminals approach started by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona.

The litigation assigned to U.S. District Judge Jose E. Martinez in Fort Pierce claims the policy is unconstitutional because it de facto bans Prison Legal News.

Its "publications, books and other materials … are political speech and social commentary, which are at the core of First Amendment values and are entitled to the highest protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution," according to the lawsuit.

Adam Fetterman, an attorney with the St. Lucie Sheriff's Department, said he is reviewing the case.

"Despite numerous outside cases by Prison Legal News, there are a number of court decisions that are favorable to the sheriff in regards to security issues," he said.

Wright's newsprint magazine is serious journalism.

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