Columbia Journalism Review interviews Paul Wright of Prison Legal News, who began his journalism career behind bars. At 21, Wright killed a man in a botched hold-up; the cocaine dealer he went to rob reached for a gun, and Wright fired first. He claimed self-defense, but was convicted of murder. Released in 2003, he became a jailhouse lawyer and convinced courts to allow his magazine in 10 prison systems. Wright also runs the Human Rights Defense Center, with a litigation arm focused on prisoners' rights, a book-publishing operation, and a budding Web presence.
The news media can be influential over prison officials’ actions, Wright contends. After the Seattle Times wrote about Wright’s being retaliated against for reporting on staff beatings of inmates in Washington state, Wright says, “the beatings slowed down for a while. The media does have some control over these issues. There are a lot of examples where doing big exposés and detailed series on stuff has led to concrete changes in the prison systems [ ] Our goal was to push stuff out to bigger media outlets. One of the reasons I started Prison Legal News is I think so much of what happens in American prisons is pretty indefensible. People will say, 'Well, we don't know what's going on.' If people don't care about it once they know, I can't do anything about apathy. But I can do something about ignorance.”