An interview with Paul Wright, editor of PLN and director of the Human Rights Defense Center, by a former Earth First! Journal collective member.
From Earth First! Newswire / By Panagioti
Prison Legal News was born the same year that the Earth First! was figuring out what it meant to support incarcerated warriors of the eco-defense movement, resulting from the Arizona 5 busts. Environmentalism and the prison industrial complex would be intertwined for Earth First! from that point on. The prison support pages of the Earth First! Journal would be a constant presence in the publication—going from a brief sidebar to a full-blown spread in the magazine with the spike in prisoners following the first Green Scare indictments in 2005.
As a resulting of EF! activists doing time in county, state and federal facilities across the US, the numbers of prisoner subscribers also began to rise steadily. Today there are now thousands of prisoners who have an Earth First! Journal pass through their hands. There are also many supporters on the outside who make donations explicitly for the purpose of keeping these prisoner subscriptions possible—being that very few prisoners are able to make enough on slave wages to pay full price for a subscription.
I first met Paul Wright in 2010, when the EF! Journal made the move to Florida. As a member of the full-time editorial collective, I was part of a decision-making process on how to deal with getting our publication rejected by prisons. When we asked lawyer friends and former Journal editors, all fingers pointed to Paul. With his advice, we were able to get Journals past the prison censors much of the time. And looking back on it from where I sit now (as a staff person in the Lake Worth office of Prison Legal News), it’s impossible to say how many potential rejections were averted thanks to Paul and PLN filing lawsuits against dozens of jails and prisons every year to fight unconstitutional practices.
Paul co-founded the magazine as a jailhouse lawyer in May of 1990. The magazine and its parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), continue working to this day to change restrictive mail policies. But HRDC has also expanded, taking on wrongful death cases in prison, fighting to expose prison slave labor and for-profit prison corporations, battling phone companies and money-transfer services from ripping off prisoners and their families, and now tackling the environmental impacts of mass incarceration by starting the Prison Ecology Project.
My questions are in bold. Without further ado…
So, do you remember the first time you read the Earth First! Journal, how you got it and what you thought of it then?
I believe I got the first Earth First! Journal, probably 1988 or so, and I may have seen it earlier before I went to prison, but I know for sure I saw it around 1988. I went to prison in 1987, and I started reaching out to a lot of different political magazines and during the course of my incarceration. I received dozens of political magazines, you know, from across the spectrum, and Earth First! Journal was one of them. And one of the reasons is that most of those publications had policies of giving free subscriptions to prisoners. The Earth First! Journal was one of those, and I believe they still continue that tradition to this day.
I’ve always been interested in the environment. And being in Washington—I’m originally from Florida—especially at that time, in the late ‘80s, a lot of environmental issues were going on then. I think it receded a little bit now, such as the spotted owl habitat, the destruction of the rain forests, and things like that. So it was certainly in the news, and I was interested in both learning more about environmental issues from a non-corporate perspective as well as learning more about the struggles against environmental degradation and destruction.
How would you say that being in prison affected your politics, and in particular, was there a moment that turned you into an activist from the inside? I’ve heard this mythology that it all started with a box of Captain Crunch cereal. What’s the story?
I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a mythology. I mean, it’s kind of what happened, and I think that different people come to struggles or to activism from different routes and at different points in their lives. I was 21 years old when I was arrested, and I was sentenced, like three or four days before my 22nd birthday, and I was in prison a week or so later. One of the things that really surprised me about going to prison was just how poorly people were being treated and, like a lot of people who haven’t been in prison, I hadn’t really given a lot of thought about prisons before I wound up in one. That said, I probably gave more thought to it than other people because even before I went to prison I’d read books about prison. I’d read biographies of people like Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton and people like that, so I thought I was probably a little more knowledgeable than the average Joe. But, I was still pretty surprised about it.
And I think that one of the things that kind of really surprised me about being in prison were the petty indignities, the lack of respect for the individual and just the overall brutality and dehumanization that surrounded it. I’d been in the military at the time of my arrest so in that respect it was kind of a continuation of the military.
You were getting used to being dehumanized?
Yeah. I think most Americans are, though. We grow up with it. It’s drilled into us from school, you know, and all the institutions of power, and I think that’s one of the things in this country. You know some of the posters from the Spanish Civil War, they show feet marching in lock step. And the only thing that changes is the caption beneath it. One is “School.” One is “Factory.” Then one is “Army.” And the fourth one is “Prison.” So you know those kind of times you have people in institutional settings of any type whether it’s prisons, schools, military, hospitals, nursing homes, I think you wind up with the same dynamics of power and control and domination.…
What about the Captain Crunch?
Yes. Back to the Captain Crunch. My cell was searched by guards. Typically, in most prisons, they perform cell searches on a pretty regular basis, and my cell was pretty trashed, and one of the things I had was a box of Captain Crunch. And my box of Captain Crunch was dumped out on the floor of my cell. There was the mess factor, but I think I paid like $3.50 for the box of Captain Crunch which may not seem like a lot, but I was making like $45 a month working in the prison kitchen at the time so the box of Captain Crunch represented like several days’ wages for me.
I went to the prison law library to find out what my recourse or what my remedy was, and basically I found out I didn’t much of a remedy. I didn’t have much recourse. And so that’s one of the things that started the wheels turning for me. It’s also me realizing that not all wrongs necessarily have a legal remedy in this country, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything you can do. And so that was part of the start of it. Around the same time, the prison was in the process of being remodeled as part of an earlier consent that prisoners had signed where the state had agreed to single cell the prison and the state was basically going back on their agreement with the prisoners. They were going to double cell the prison, and I got involved in a struggle against that. That’s what got me started on a more concrete role of prisoner’s rights, activism, and struggle against prison administrators and the prison system.
I also recall another story that you mentioned to me in the past that I wanted to pry a little bit more about: the bird’s nest at Clallam Bay. What happened there?
I think one of the things is, the prison at Clallam Bay was, it’s literally the farthest extreme of the continent. It’s on the end of the Olympic Peninsula. It’s very rural, very isolated. Ironically, I think for Earth First! readers is the fact is that the reason they built the prison there was they clear-cut all the forests on the Olympic Peninsula, around the prison, so at that point, they have a bunch of loggers that are now out of work because they cut down all the trees. So they build this prison as a classic example of welfare for rural white people. And they build this prison out here in a very remote part of Washington and they dutifully fill it up with prisoners. And the staff was pretty much all white, I think. At the time I was there, there was only like three Black employees and, ultimately, they were run off by the white supremacists—staff members. We did exposés in Prison Legal News with the Seattle Weekly about the Nazi guards employed at Clallam Bay and some of the other prisons on the Olympic Peninsula. So they’re pretty open about it as in, yeah, they have swastika tattoos. They’re goose-stepping around the prison and stuff like that. So not surprisingly they’re also pretty brutal.
I got there in 1990, and I was ultimately there for two-and-a-half years. And during the time period I was there, they were over the top with their brutality. You have gangs of seven, eight, ten prison guards routinely beating people up. And I wrote articles on it in Prison Legal News. I was infracted for one of the articles I wrote. And also for writing and complaining about the beatings to the governor and to the FBI, among other people, none of whom did anything about it. The beatings pretty much continue on unabated, I think, to this day.
But, generally, it was a pretty lawless place. And there were bird’s nests that were coming up, they were being set up on the prison. The prison was built in 1985 or ‘86, so it was a modern construction, and it’s one of these concrete low-lying, two story type prisons. So there weren’t any really high spots.
And the birds were setting up their nests inside portions of the prison on the walkways that were covered, and the guards were going around with brooms and knocking the nests down and breaking the eggs in them. And, anyway, so I thought that was, just as I don’t think people should be being beaten for no reason by prison guards, I thought this was wrong as well. And I tried to figure out what type of bird it was, because I knew this prison is built literally in the middle of what’s left of the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula.
At the time the spotted owl was one of the big controversies that was roiling. So I was trying to find out what type birds the nests were that were being destroyed because I was wondering, is it endangered or a protected species? I’m not enough of a bird person, and the prison library didn’t have enough resources for me to make that connection to identify what kind it was. But anyways I wrote both to the state and the federal Fish & Wildlife Service, and I have to say, I’m 49 years old, I’ve never seen a law enforcement agency move this quickly to a prisoner’s letter. And, you know, I think the letter must have gone out on a Monday, and by Wednesday, the Fish & Wildlife Department was at the prison and, literally, by the end of the week, there were memos up from the warden instructing everyone to leave the birds’ nests alone. I think it turned out it was a protected species. I think it was some type of swallow or something like that, that, you know, that was federally protected and, like I say, I couldn’t get anyone interested to do anything about the beatings of the prisoners. But, by golly, Fish & Wildlife is right on it when it came to the birds.
And one of the things that I think may be of interest, especially to Earth First! readers is about building a prison in the middle of a rain forest, and this is one of the ironies, the only time I’ve been to Clallam Bay before and since then was when I was on a bus that took me in there, and once on the bus that took me out of there. And you get to the prison, and it’s surrounded by trees, but then you have this Potemkin village like effect. As the bus approaches, you realize everything’s been clear-cut around it. So you’ve got some trees around the prison, but the rest of the peninsula is largely clear-cut except for a couple hundred feet of trees on each side of the road going there. One of the things that was interesting is that during hunting season there’s no shooting allowed within two miles of the prison. And during hunting season, the animals sense this, and so you look outside your cell window or from the prison yard and there’s a herd of elk. There’s deer. There’s all kinds of animals because they figure, “Hey, we’ll huddle next to the prison, and we’re perfectly safe.” And it’s interesting that for a lot of prisoners, especially Black and Hispanic prisoners from Seattle and Tacoma, this is literally their first contact with wildlife. The down side, of course, they’re having to come to a prison in a clear-cut rain forest to see it, but, you know, and then we’d have lively discussions as to whether they were deer or elk and things like that.
I think that’s one of the things that a lot of people generally don’t make the connection between: mass incarceration and environmental degradation. And this was just a classic example where you know after the land has been destroyed, everything’s been extracted out of it, the last thing they do is, “Well, let’s just build a prison here.”
And the irony was that most of the lumberjacks, generally, they didn’t last being prison guards. They didn’t like working indoors. They didn’t like the whole prison thing, and the state spent, you know, I don’t know how many hundreds-of-thousands or millions of dollars training these lumberjacks into being prison guards. And the ones that puttered through the course generally they didn’t last very long.
It just wasn’t for them.
Well, you covered a question I was going to ask about the relationship between people in prison and the natural world… Were you all able to leave the facility? How much outdoor access did you have there, or other prisons you’ve been in?
It depends. Typically, in most prisons they have a yard, so this is your, you know, literally it’s like a bigger cage. Newer prisons like Clallam Bay, for example, it’s surrounded by razor wire fences, and things like that, and armed guards and towers. Whereas older prisons like Walla Walla or the reformatory, for example, in Washington, these have walls, usually made out of brick or whatever, with guard towers. So, typically, that’s the interaction that prisoners have in terms of being outdoors. And, you know, that’s sad. I think there’s variation. And I’m talking about medium and maximum security prisons.
Obviously, minimum security is different because in a lot of minimum security prisons, prisoners are used as slave laborers. For agricultural operations, picking up garbage, and things like that. So they’ll go off site of the prison perimeter. But even within the prison, and I think that’s one of those things, part of it is the notion that the environment or nature is only in remote places and you have to be outdoors. One of the things that kind of surprised me at first when I first went to prison was the guys that worked in prison industries and had the vegetable garden in back of it.
And then I was really surprised after being in prison a couple more months, my next door neighbor had a pet mouse that he would feed it. He would feed crackers to it at night, and I’m kind of alarmed because I’m like, you know, I’m keeping my commissary underneath my bed, and you’re bringing, and you have a mouse, and maybe your mouse doesn’t know that it’s okay to eat your crackers but not my Chips Ahoy, or something.
I think that one of the connections, or one of the conclusions that I drew from that as a species were very connected to nature and the environment regardless of where we find ourselves, and I think regardless of what’s going on around us. Some of the prisons in Washington, for example the penitentiary, in a response to uprisings and rebellions by prisoners there in the ‘70s, they literally they paved everything in the prison.
Everything was paved. So there is no earth. There is no soil within the prison perimeter except for in the yard. And that’s it. And that’s one of the things that really struck me, the effort put into crushing, destroying people and with it the nature around us. And, you know, this process continues unabated, if anything, somewhat intensified.
Right. Well, Prison Legal News has been covering issues related to the environment, to water quality, to things I think that draw the connections between prisons and ecology for as long as it’s been around.
Did you imagine that the magazine would last 25 years? When you started it, did you have an idea of where it was going?
Well, Ed Mead and I started the magazine in May of 1990 when we published our first issue, and between us we had $300, which we figured was the budget for six months.
And, basically, we thought, okay, we’ll publish the magazine as long as the money keeps coming in to publish it. And I don’t think we ever thought that, I certainly never thought that 25 years later I’d still be doing this. And I don’t think anyone really did. And one of the things that’s interesting with the history of prison publishing in this country, when Prison Legal News started in 1990, there were 40 or 50 independent prisoner rights publications.
Today I think we’re the only one left.
So on the one hand, I think no one thought we were going to last as long as we have. On the other hand, I’ve always kind of thought, well, there’s no reason we shouldn’t.
And I’d say, if anything, the need is greater now than it was when we started. It’s just one of those things where, I guess at the time, let’s see, I was 25 years old when we started the magazine. I didn’t really think that 25 years later I would still be doing it, but then on the other hand I think that if you asked most 25-year-olds what do you think you’re going to be doing 25 years from now, I don’t think anyone’s saying that they’re still going to be doing the same thing they’re doing now.
I think it’s a good lesson for the Earth First! movement which tends to find itself, at least in the past ten years, largely stuck in the demographic of people in their 20s. I’m often asking people at those gatherings “Think about what you’re doing. Are you going to be doing this in ten years?” And, you know, plan accordingly for the long term. I think it’s hard for people to picture that.
I think if there’s a problem, or there’s an injustice, then you need to stick with it until the problem is resolved.
Otherwise, we see a lot of this, especially in the non-profit sector, where it’s variations of poverty pimping where basically people, that’s what they make their living doing. They just go from one poverty problem to another as long as the funding is there. And there’s no actual long-term commitment to resolve the problem, or the underlying issue.
We often discussed a similar notion at the Earth First! Journal—how to have stable enough finances so were weren’t begging for grants and donations, but that we were actually producing a tangible contribution to the movement that people valued enough to support financially. PLN seems like a true model of this. Something that we also tried to figure out at the Journal when I was there was how many people in prisons pass it around, hand to hand, and get a guess at how many people were reading it inside. Do you have a guess at that?
Well, all I can tell you is that when I was in prison, and I got the Earth First! Journal, usually what happens in prison is you have what’s called a chain. Say, for example, I get the Earth First! Journal and I get Prison Legal News and the Seattle Times, and you get Newsweek, the Seattle Weekly and the Palm Beach Post, or whatever, then we’re going to trade. I’m going to give you three magazines I’ve got. I’m done reading them. You give me yours, and then each one of us will have the chain of people that we give them to. So I give it to this guy, and then he’s giving it to this guy, and then so on down the line. In the medium and the maximum security prisons, places that have relatively stable populations of lifers or people that are doing relatively long sentences, things are actually fairly organized.
And this is one of those things, because these are environments of enforced or created scarcity, everything takes on a bigger value. Like when I got Earth First!, I’d say at least ten or 15 people read my copy. And that’s just as far as I knew how far the chain went. I just knew by the time I gave it to this guy, I knew like more or less the next five or six people down the road that were reading his copy. And then after that, who knows how many people read it.
I remember talking to Eric McDavid at the Environmental Law Conference in Oregon this year, at the table next to PLN, and he mentioned that copies of PLN that they would get in his facility would be read until they were basically dust, until they couldn’t even be held anymore.
Yeah. That’s actually the norm. It’s funny when I’ve talked to prisoners that have done time in the Bureau of Prisons, and we’ve never had a huge readership in the Bureau of Prisons, all these guys say, “Yeah, that’s because whoever gets it, they take it out to UNICOR and they make like 300 photocopies of it,” and, and it’s interesting because, you know, our book sales are, in the BOP, are way out of proportion to our subscriptions which means, obviously, plenty of people are seeing our book ads. But they’re seeing it in the magazine. They’re just not subscribing to the magazine. And I think that’s, you know, I think that’s great. People, especially younger people today don’t value the concept of the printed word and printed publications. Maybe to an extent that’s a generational thing. But at the end of the day, if you think about it, for people, especially for poor people, whether it’s in prisons or homeless shelters or immigrants or whatever, you know you can pick up that magazine, and you can read it, and you have something. You don’t need a $500 device to be able to read it. You don’t have to worry, “Hey is my charger down? Is my battery dying?” You know, “What’s the lighting on my screen like?” And you know it’s totally portable. That’s one of the things people forget about.
I have to say, kudos to Earth First! for continuing to publish a print journal… I think, at this point, many of the print subscribers are prisoners.
It’s a significant portion, definitely. If we could estimate how many of the readers are locked up, it would probably be comparable between the inside and the outside. Yeah. They have a big readership in prison, and we had people come out of prison and come volunteer at the Journal office before because they have been reading it for years…
I’m going to take a little bit of a different direction now and talk about the Human Rights Defense Center and the relationship between that the Prison Legal News, and, in particular, some of the instances where HRDC or PLN has come in contact with some of the eco-prisoners. The one instance that comes to mind is with animal liberation prisoner Kevin Olliff, who has had extensive communication with HRDC. He has in turn engaged his supporters in fighting to lift book bans and end exorbitant phone rates for prisoners.
Yeah. Well, since Prison Legal News started in 1990 we’ve also viewed ourselves as a journal of struggle. We’ve never aimed to be a magazine to entertain, that people just read and put it on the shelf. That’s why we’ve never wanted to be a mass circulation magazine. Our target audiences are people who change things and who make things happen. From the outset we’ve also been supportive of political prisoners and prisoners of war, both in this country and elsewhere. We reach out to political prisoners, typically by offering them complimentary subscriptions to Prison Legal News and that’s been pretty much across the board, not just animal rights and environmental prisoners, but also, you know, anti-colonial prisoners from, whether it’s Puerto Rico or Black prisoners, anti-war resisters. conscientious objectors. Everyone across the board, from left and progressive causes we’ve given complimentary subscriptions to. And we continue that practice to this day.
Is there any suggestions, knowing that likely some of the environmental and animal liberation prisoners will probably be reading this, for ways that they can participate in the things that PLN and HRDC are doing in order to change policies inside?
Well, our big thing is the anti-censorship struggle. It has been the Number One thing we’ve done just because we view it that we’re publishing a magazine, there’s no point in publishing a prisoner rights magazine if prisoners can’t read it. So that’s been our Number One priority. But, certainly a lot of it has also been reporting on news and what’s happening inside prisons and seeking to change those conditions and issues for the better.
I think for a lot of prisoners it depends on what stage they’re at, especially for political prisoners if they’re still at the pre-trial stage I think they’re usually pretty immersed in getting acclimated or used to what’s going on in prison. And, generally, their first priority is dealing with their criminal case or their criminal charges.
And once they get to prison, it’s generally another level at that point. And one of the things for a lot of political prisoners—a lot of them do time in different ways—but I think for a lot of political prisoners, they will just take the position of “I’m active on the issue that brought me here,” but don’t see any of the connections between whether it’s the liberation of Puerto Rico or the environment or animal rights and prisoner rights issues.
Then I think there’s also a number of folks that do think there’s an interconnection here between the injustice that permeates a system that destroys the planet and slaughters animals. This is just another form of injustice being perpetrated against humans. And so they take part in that. But I’d say that that’s one of those things that’s kind of individual to the person, and I think that I’ve always viewed things as a total struggle that’s interconnected. I think prison issues are obviously important but that said, I think environmental issues are important as well. I think issues of financial reform, lack of health care, lack of quality education, how children are treated, you know, I think those are also important as well. But, you know, I probably have more worries and concerns than a lot of people. So I think it just comes down to what are people’s interests and priorities.
Well, prisons, a lot of them are basically factories where they have associated prison sweat shops, right? It seems like that introduces another whole realm of looking at different issues and also the environmental issues connected within that.
There’s that. Another thing is prisons operated slaughter houses. They’ve kind of fallen from favor because they’re not economically viable— which a lot of prison industries generally are not. Until fairly recently a lot of prisons operated their own slaughter houses and butchering operations, and things like that. In fact, in Texas and Louisiana and Mississippi and Arkansas they still do.
So I think that depending on how interested people are, there’s actually a lot of big connections between these issues and mass incarceration for criminal justice issues. In fact, I remember a couple of years ago I was contacted by PETA, and they actually were taking a rather bizarre stance. They were offended that prisoners from work releases in Georgia were being forced to work in the slaughterhouses, in an area where they’d fired the workers who were trying to organize for better wages. And PETA’s concern was that somehow having prisoners—these were mostly probationers which were people generally accused of and convicted of fairly petty crimes—was somehow put the animals at graver risk. I saw the injustice as the fact that people are being forced to do work that, you know, that the company can’t pay a fair wage to get people to do, as well as the work conditions that they’re being forced to work under. And then we get the industrialized slaughter of animals.
On another topic, I was curious to know how you all decided to deal with having one of the Green Scare snitches apply for a job at Prison Legal News and HRDC, and what responsibilities you think projects like this have to deal with people like that.
It was Lacey Phillabaum, I think…
Sadly, a former editor of the Earth First! Journal…
Which actually I think she mentioned that…
In her interview?!
Well it wasn’t an interview. She emailed me just before she was going to prison, and she offered to write for Prison Legal News. And, yeah, I think that’s one of the things that goes along with defining ourselves as a journal of struggle. In general, it is an adversarial world that we live in. And I think at the end of the day it comes down to, who are the people that support justice? Who are the people that support equality?
Who are the people supporting the good things in life, and who are those that are seeking to prop up and expand or maintain the systems of domination and control that are basically destroying the vast majority of us, not just in this country, but around the world. And it’s one of those things where, as long as I have any say in either PLN’s editorial policies or our hiring practices, we’re just not printing anything by informants, or I should say known informants. Because a lot of times people are informants and no one knows about them until like decades after they’re dead.
And the bigger thing is that this whole snitch factory system, that especially the federal government operates, it rarely gets any type of comment within the broader movement. I’ve been really surprised to learn that a number of the informants from Green Scare cases are working as paralegals for like criminal defense lawyers. And I don’t comment on other organizations, or other people’s hiring practices. But it certainly seems odd to me that if you’re in the business of representing people accused of a crime, why would you employ informants?
I could be wrong, I don’t claim to follow this a lot. But as far as all of the Green Scare informants, the people that have collaborated with the government, I don’t recall that I’ve seen any expressions of remorse or sorrow. No one is saying, “Hey, I’m really sorry I did that.” It’s like, “Yeah, I snitched and it’s better than going to prison for a long time.” I mean I haven’t seen anything beyond that.
I think the environmental movement didn’t have a context or didn’t necessarily have the experience to understand what had happened, and knowledge of prior movements that had experienced a heavy degree of informants and infiltration. I don’t know if you can say there were lessons learned, because it’s going to be lessons that we will continually be learning as these people are getting out of prison.
Well, it’s reinventing the wheel. When you go back to like the history of the American Communist Party or other organizations going back to the ‘50s with the McCarthy Era, it’s interesting because a lot of people still remember these lessons. When Ezra Kazan, the Hollywood producer, got the lifetime achievement Oscar a couple of years ago, and you know he was notorious in the 1950s for cooperating with Joe McCarthy and snitching out real or alleged members of the Communist Party. I remember watching … I’m not an Oscars fan, but that year I happened to be watching, and I noticed that when the camera was panning through the crowd, there were a lot of people sitting, you know, making a point of sitting down with their arms crossed, and they weren’t applauding, and they weren’t too happy about it. One of the things that’s important is that we, as Americans, we’ve actually got a really long and rich history of struggle. You know, one of the ironies as May comes upon us is that May Day originated in this country, and we’re the only country that doesn’t celebrate it.
Right. We call it “Law Day” here on the calendar.
Yes. Well, Bill Clinton enshrined it as Law Enforcement Day in the 1990s for a crime bill, and it’s like, have they no decency? They have to steal everything. But I think we have a lot of the answers. We answered a lot of these questions in the past. The problem is, we’ve forgotten the answers.
Well, I want to move into a strategy conversations question before we finish up here, so mass incarceration is epidemic…
I don’t think it’s an epidemic. I mean, it’s a tool of social control.
Yes, that’s a more accurate description. So it’s a significant massive tool of social control. Maybe the most, you know, repressive experiment in history at least that we have documented. So would you say that’s a …
I think the genocide of the Native American population in this country is probably the most thoroughly implemented.
Okay. Fair enough.
… Experiment in social manipulation and control.
Can we put it in the top five somewhere?
I’m sure it’s in the top five. One criminologist, Elliott Currie, calls mass incarceration the most thoroughly implemented experiment in social control in American history, and, you know, I think that probably distinguishes it from outright genocide. That’s certainly one of those things that is ironic that the United States—both in terms of percentage of its population and in terms of raw numbers—imprisons more people than either Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia did at the height of their power, and that’s in the context that both countries were engaged in civil wars or world wars at the time.
And they weren’t locking up as many people as the United States does.
Yeah. It’s big. One of the things I find interesting is the fact that the United States has this level of repression in the total absence of almost any resistance. They don’t even have any organized political opposition.
Well, you know, maybe, could it be that it’s preemptive, that the prison system is designed to be preempting resistance.
Yes. I think it very much is because, if you look at like modern history, the United States has achieved a level of social stability that I think is pretty much unparalleled for a society that has this degree of economic inequality. You know, mass incarceration is extremely destabilizing to communities, to families, and more importantly, to the fact that, at the end of the day, poor men are the foot soldiers of revolutionary change, not just in this country but anywhere in the world. And the United States has done a pretty good job of locking up around two million of them, at any given time. By young men, this isn’t the total number of incarcerated people. I’m just saying “young men.” That two million number is just young men. One of the goals of the prison system is to break and destroy individuals. And I think that’s what they’re geared up to do, and they generally do a fairly good job of it.
So a successful social movement needs to recognize that ending mass incarceration would be a step in the direction of a significant social change. Then what do you see as the most strategic points in challenging mass incarceration?
I think that the whole system of mass incarceration actually has a lot of weak points. The bigger problem is that it has no opposition and, you know, across mainstream politics, I mean, mass incarceration in the United States is very much a bipartisan affair just like imperialist foreign policy is. There is no dissent.
Thinking back, like the last four or five election cycles, offhand, the only mainstream political candidate that I can recall that’s run for President that’s publicly opposed the death penalty is Ron Paul. I’m assuming Ralph Nader is, but I don’t recall him ever saying that in public that he is. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. But I think that you just get to the point where everyone in a position of power in this country is down with mass incarceration. On the one hand, it shows the poverty of the political system on these issues. And I think from the point of the wealthy and the ruling class, they support mass incarceration because at the end of the day their economic wealth and power depends on the strength of the police forces that propped them up.
Where would you say the HRDC and PLN have found points of intervention? Because I consider this organization to be very effective with the relatively small number of people that are doing the bulk of the work. Are there some things you want to talk about where you think there’s been successes or momentum in the direction of successes at challenging the system?
Well, I think success is relative. I’ve spent my entire career as a prisoner rights activist I think fighting one long retreat from the relatively modest successes or gains that were made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. I can say right now after doing this for over 25 years I can’t think of a single condition that is better for American prisoners today than it was in 1987 when I went to prison.
We don’t even know as a nation how many people the police murder every year in this country. These are really basic things. When Prison Legal News started in 1990, there were a million people in prison. Today there are two-and-a-half million. To put this in perspective, on any given day in this country there’s around a million people that are working as guards, secretaries, prison doctors, whatever, there’s a million people drawing a paycheck whose livelihood and economic well-being directly depends on caging other people in this country. I’m not counting the police. I’m not counting the judges, the court workers, the companies that supply the razor wire, the companies that design the prisons, or the shareholders of the private prison companies. I’m just talking about the people who get a paycheck every week that is related to mass incarceration by directly caging people. You actually have a lot of people that are benefiting from the status quo.
And opposing them, on the other side, I think you’ve got maybe, I think it’s probably a stretch to say if there’s 200 people who do prisoner criminal justice reform on a full-time basis and our collective organizational budgets are probably under $30 or $40 million. We’re going up against a $90-billion-a-year industry with a million people feeding at that trough.
When you’re actually looking at conditions … confinement and stuff like that … on the criminal justice reform side it’s even smaller than that. Some of the modest successes that we’ve obtained, they’re not really successes. Because, for example, when a jail decides to ban all letter mail, and the Human Rights Defense Center sues them, and we win, we basically have just restored the status quo of going back to letter mail. We haven’t made any advances forward. We’re not on an offensive where we’re moving anything forward. All we’re doing is, at best, holding the line of repression a little bit at bay. And across the board, I would say that our success has been, we’ve won the occasional battle on things, and it’s just slowed the tide of repression in a few small areas. But, overall, I’d say it’s been a long battle and I’d say by any objective means of measurement we’re losing and losing badly.
A lot of people think that, against such a vast system that as individuals we’re powerless, and I don’t think that’s the case. There are a lot of things that individuals or small groups of individuals can do, and that’s stuff that I think is really critical.
What do you think about the possibility of bridging the worlds between the criminal justice reform movements and the environmental movement to bring more people in?
I think that that’s one of the problems that we have is the fact that people see themselves as siloed. For example, when I was in prison at McNeil Island and I’d go to brush my teeth, and the water coming out of the faucet is brown, I didn’t really think of this as a criminal justice issue. This is really an environmental issue. I shouldn’t be having brown water coming out of the faucet. And likewise when I’m being trucked in chains to a prison in the middle of a clear-cut rain forest, I saw the tragedy that the rain forest was being cut down for the profit of Weyerhaeuser rather than the whole thing as a criminal justice issue.
One of the first problems is thinking that the issues are mutually exclusive because they’re not.
The United States doesn’t have a public health policy, but they have a mass incarceration policy. So people that are mentally ill can’t get treatment, but if, as a results of their mental illness they kill someone or they’re perpetually homeless, they’re going to go to prison. So prison is the solution to that.
When we look at these military bases that have been destroyed from decades of dumping diesel and jet fuel on the ground, spilling chemical weapons into the ground, and everything else, and then they convert those same military bases into prisons, I think this is very much an indictment of the military and their system of military basing. Likewise when prisons are being built on abandoned uranium mines or coal mines, I think that’s an indictment of our whole mining system and our resource extraction system in this country. It’s not just a criminal justice issue.
And I think that that’s one of the things that’s been largely unexplored and that no one has really dealt with in any type of systemic manner is the connection between mass incarceration and the environmental destruction.
Out West, one of the things that I’m to this day shocked and appalled by are these massive prisons that have been built in environmentally sensitive areas, like the high Sierra mountains of California, and the desert in Arizona, and not just the destruction of this fragile habitat, but where’s all the water coming from? They’re building prisons in the desert, and prisons use a lot of water.
While they’re siting the prison in these remote rural areas that are destroying the environment, they’re also taking prisoners far away from their families and their social networks, and the cities that they come from, it’s really a cascading effect of injustice. I think certainly the time has come to end people looking at these as isolated issues because they’re not isolated issues. They’re very interconnected and each one, I think as soon as you looks at one … it’s like peeling an onion. As soon as you peel away one layer of injustice, you’re finding five more underneath it.
The environmental movement, like most movements, would see this as well, every time they peel back one layer of an issue, they find other ones unraveling. For that reason, for the massive threats environmentally that we’re facing as a species that the environmental movement also needs to figure out how to broaden beyond what oftentimes comes across as a single issue, narrow focus, middle-class kind of hobby. I don’t just think the criminal justice movement needs to look at the environmental movement for help. But I think the environmental movement needs to say, “Hey, look, we need people with broader experiences to be viewing themselves as part of this movement if we’re actually trying to change the system that’s creating the environmental problem.”
I agree with that… I need to go back to the old joke: You know, if you have three blind people and you have them feeling an elephant, and each one is feeling a different body part. You know, it’s a very different perception than when you can sit back and look at the animal as a whole. And, okay, it’s an elephant. That’s one of the things that happens too often with people in social reform or social justice movements. When you look back, like a hundred years ago, or probably even 50 or 60 years ago, that activists and revolutionaries, they were pretty well read and well informed on a variety of issues. Like labor organizers, for example—they couldn’t just tell you about what horrible labor practices were being undergone at that time. They could tell you about other issues, whether it’s universal suffrage or Jim Crow. Industrial labor organizers could tell you something about farm work, they were knowledgeable. In some respects I think that what’s led to this narrowing of social vision, which is ironic, because in the age of the Internet, never before in human history has so much knowledge been accessible or available at such relatively little cost or effort, and yet people seem to be even more isolated and more fragmented.
Without getting in a bigger sociological discussion, I think a lot of this has to do with everything from the suburbs and the atomization of individuals where, you know, it’s hard to think that in this country as recently as 40 years ago, Americans still came together on a regular basis to fight for social justice in everything from rent strikes in cities to the fact that in the 1970s, 40 or 50,000 people would turn out to march for prisoners’ rights in San Francisco. I mean, for people of our generation, that sounds like it may as well be on Mars, and it may as well have been a thousand years ago. But it’s within our living memory. And I think it’s up to us to try to reclaim that.
True. Well, that’s a great thought to close on. Anything else that you wanted to add in before we wrap up?
Well, one of the things that people often wonder is how I can, as an individual, make a difference, especially on criminal justice issues. One of the big things that really is a problem, especially in criminal justice, and with our government at large in this country today, is the lack of transparency, the overwhelming secrecy that envelops it. We have a lot of cases where knowledge is right in front of us, yet it’s not being disseminated. And one of the things that HRDC has been very good at over the decades is using public records laws to pry information out of government agencies and then, you know, publicizing it. I think that the environmental impact of the criminal justice system is something that has not been explored. It hasn’t been very well documented. Most people in this country don’t even understand that it’s happening.
If people look around in their communities, and just ask simple questions: Where is the local jail built? Where is the local prison built? And what’s the environmental impact on that? And then just start answering those questions. I think it will give a new appreciation for the environment, and it’s also one of those things that, you know, it makes us realize that we don’t have to go to Oregon, to the middle of the woods, to find environmental injustice. In most cases, its right here in our own communities and that environmental injustice is perpetuating another injustice.
That’s a perfect way to wrap this up… Congratulations on 25 years of this organization, and thanks for your dedication.
Find out how to subscribe, donate, sign up for PLN’s daily news reports, peruse thousands of exclusive online articles written by prisoner activists and jailhouse lawyers, and read the full archives of PLN (including wild tales from Paul’s prison riot experiences at Clallam Bay), check out: www.PrisonLegalNews.org