A nondescript office building in downtown Lake Worth now houses the headquarters of Prison Legal News, one of the nation's most aggressive and effective, if lesser-known, human rights organizations. The publication relocated to South Florida this summer.
Fittingly, the new offices sit directly across the street from the city's police station: PLN covers the criminal justice system, including issues like court access, disciplinary hearings, prison conditions, excessive force, mail censorship, jail litigation, visitation and phone call rights, free speech, prison rape, abuse of women prisoners, and the death penalty.
PLN had previously been based in Seattle and in Brattleboro Vermont. When New Times suggested those were locations with political climates more favorable than Florida's to PLN's work, founder/editor Paul Wright dismissed those prior homes as "police state light... People seem to think there's safe territory where you're beyond its reach. You're not."
Now entering its 24th year, PLN's print edition totals 7,000 copies monthly, two-thirds of that to federal and state prisoners. Its informational value is so great it has an estimated ten readers per copy. PLN's online edition includes a full catalog of back issues with complete content. A major point of pride is the accuracy of PLN's reporting. "In 23 years of publication we've only had to print a retraction one time," Wright told New Times. "In 290 issues, that's a pretty good track record."
At the same time, the publication is so threatening to the power of officials who abuse prisoners that it is frequently, and unconstitutionally, kept from inmates' reach. Consequently, a significant portion of PLN's funding derives from damage awards for official violations of prisoners' First Amendment rights. (The group's staff of 12 includes a cohort of attorneys.)
Otherwise, PLN's revenue depends on subscriptions and advertising, book sales, foundation grants, and individual donations. The last two are tax-exempt, as PLN is an arm of the Human Rights Defense Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
As to how PLN chose Lake Worth to move to, the answer is disappointingly mundane: Wright grew up there. But the full arc of Wright's personal tale and how it led to the creation of PLN is, to say the least, colorful. As he told the Columbia Journalism Review:
The worst phone call I ever made was when I was sitting in jail and called my parents to tell them that I'd been arrested on murder charges. I grew up in Lake Worth, FL. My dad worked for the post office and my mom was a housewife. I liked to read and stay up on what's happening, but my career goals were always in the law-enforcement arena, not journalism. I graduated high school when I was 16, and then went to Mexico to teach English. I came back to the US when I was 18 and joined the Army. I was stationed in Hanau, Germany, as a military policeman. When I came back to US, I went through a military police investigator course, and I was working as a military police officer in Washington when I was arrested.
In retrospect, it was really pathetic. I was making $400 a month, and they had just cut our per diem. I was looking for a way to make fast money. I chose to rob a drug dealer. Cops ripping off drug dealers isn't uncommon; I wasn't the first or last guy to have that idea. [[Wright says the drug dealer tried to shoot him, but he shot and killed the dealer first, leading to his murder conviction and a 25-year sentence.]] I was arrested about a week before I was due to get out of the Army. I don't really think that what I did, or my time in prison, defines me as a person, but for a lot of people it does. I can't do anything about that.
I thought I was pretty well informed about most things, but the treatment of prisoners surprised me. If you don't know any better, you think, Wow, they've got the guns, so they can do whatever they want. But over time I started to feel that regardless of what I'd been convicted of, I deserved to be treated better than I was. After I'd been inside about two years, the guards came into my cell one day and dumped out my Cap'n Crunch cereal on the floor. I'm making 42 cents an hour and a box of Cap'n Crunch is $3 -- I thought that was quite the outrage. I started looking into what legal remedies I had, and that's what got me interested in the law and prisoners' rights advocacy.
Wright has a thoroughgoing analysis of the social and economic conditions that underpin our criminal justice system. "How many rich people of any race are they herding into prison?" he asked us. But while this view is grounded on the political left, he is not at all what one could call soft on crime. "I can support any system of justice, no matter how draconian," he told us, "as long as it's equally applied."
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.