On Jan. 5, lawyers representing the Florida Department of Corrections will troop into a federal courtroom in Tallahassee, ready to defend the department’s ban on the Prison Legal News.
Florida taxpayers, who are paying for this legal defense of censorship, might wonder why.
After all, other state prison systems allow inmates access to the Prison Legal News without the joints busting out in riots and insurrection.
The lawyers will claim that the PLN must be kept out of Florida prisons because advertising in the national magazine — ads for three-way calling services, commerce via postage stamps (which has replaced cigarettes as the favorite underground currency in the big house), offers to purchase prisoner artwork and pen pal operations — represent subversive threats to prison security. All that’s a charade, of course. No one really thinks that the ban has a thing to do with ad content.
It’s the articles that the DOC wants to keep away from prisoner eyes. In its lawsuit against the Department of Corrections, the monthly magazine describes its mission as “public education, advocacy and outreach on behalf of, and for the purpose of assisting, prisoners who seek legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed and other basic human rights.”
Other prison systems might allow inmates access to that kind of material. But the Florida DOC can hardly abide prisoners harboring notions that they might retain some basic human rights behind bars — not in a system long given to a management ethic based on physical brutality, cruelty, mendacity and the occasional killing.
Maybe the Florida guards do it to maintain an old fashioned disciplinary regime devised early in the last century. Maybe they do it just for the fun of inflicting pain on powerless inmates (as if when the guards watched Cool Hand Luke they mistook the sadistic Florida prison captain in the mirrored sunglasses as the flick’s hero). But the extent of their meanness has lately become a full-blown scandal. Over last few months, the Miami Herald’s Julie Brown has documented case after case of gut-wrenching torture and the deaths of prisoners after altercations with prison guards -- deaths that had been shrugged off or covered up by the DOC hierarchy.
So far, in the wake of the Herald investigation, some 35 guards have been fired. Five prison sergeants and a captain were arrested and charged with gassing, beating and kicking a handcuffed and shackled inmate and then trying to hide the details of their involvement. Some 80 inmate deaths are under investigation. Last month, Secretary of Corrections Michael Crews resigned.
The Herald was able to extract these stories out of the prison system with the help of a few brave inmates, taking considerable risk. That’s how we learned crucial details, for instance, about the harrowing death of Darren Rainey, a 50-year-old mentally ill inmate at Dade Correctional Institution, who had been locked inside a scalding hot shower closet by guards and left there two hours, screaming in pain, punishment for acting out.
Inmates who think prisoners have a right not to be subjected to torture and killings at the whim of corrections officers have been troublesome enough to the DOC. Plainly, the department wants to keep such notions from spreading to the wider prison population.
That may explain why the DOC regards the Prison Legal News the way Richard Nixon saw the Washington Post. The December issue, for example, offers a book review: “Prisoners suffer violations of their constitutional rights in numerous ways, and many times the injustice also includes receiving a disciplinary charge. In his book, Battling the Administration: An Inmate’s Guide to a Successful Lawsuit, David J. Meister covers a variety of ways in which prisoners are harmed and explains, in easy-to-understand terms, exactly how an injured party can obtain “relief.”
The PLN is laden with this kind of material — information that the Florida DOC would just as soon suppress. The Lake Worth-based magazine was founded in 1990 in a Washington state prison cell by Paul Wright, a former military policeman who was serving a 17-year stint for the shooting death of a drug dealer. After his release in 2003, Wright, 49, kept the publication going.
Over the years PLN, with a circulation of about 9,000, has supplied prisoners in all 50 states with news about incarceration policies, scandals, lawsuits and reforms. The magazine has exposed the illegal use of prison labor by corporations and even by politicians.
Wright also founded the Human Rights Defense Center, the legal arm of the operation, which has filed two dozen lawsuits across the county against prisons and jails with draconian policies, including a federal complaint last year against the St. Lucie County Jail for enforcing “a policy that requires all incoming mail sent to jail inmates to be on postcards,” which pretty well eliminates books and periodicals like the Prison Legal News.
The Human Rights Defense Center first took on the Florida DOC for banning PLN back in 2003, but the federal judge declared that case moot after the department changed its policies and allowed prisoners access to the magazine. But in 2009, the ban was reinstated and a new lawsuit was filed, setting up next month’s confrontation in Tallahassee.
Wright, with a tough speaking manner that recalls his own years behind bars, said the tussle over ad content is just a facade — that the DOC wants to keep information about basic rights away from its 100,000 prisoners. “We tell inmates how to advocate for themselves,” he said, insisting that’s what the ban is all about. “Because the vast majority of inmates won't get help from anyone else. They have to do it themselves.”
In October, as the Florida prison system was becoming engulfed in a scandal of abuse, deaths and cover-ups, PLN published an articled headlined, “How Many Inmate Deaths Are Too Many?”
It was a question the DOC would rather prisoners not contemplate.