Prison Legal News
|First issue||May 1990|
Prison Legal News is a black-and-white monthly American magazine and on-line periodical published since May 1990. Prison Legal News (PLN) primarily reports on criminal justice issues and prison and jail-related civil litigation, mainly in the United States, and is a project of the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
PLN covers all aspects of the criminal justice system, including court access, prison conditions, privatization, disciplinary hearings, excessive force, mail censorship, jails, wrongful convictions, crime labs, visitation, prison phone services, religious freedom, free speech, prison rape, abuse of women prisoners, retaliation, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), medical treatment, HIV and hepatitis C, prison slave labor, disenfranchisement, the death penalty and control units/supermax facilities. However, “the mainstay of PLN’s coverage from the beginning has been the issue of conditions of confinement.”
 Origins and Function
Prison Legal News was originally inspired by the need for prisoners and their families to have a voice in criminal justice policy and to provide timely, accurate news about justice-related issues and progressive reform efforts. PLN has been both admired and disliked for its strong advocacy of prisoner rights, including its extensive litigation involving jails and prison systems.
As of February 2013, PLN had an average circulation of over 7,000 hardcopy issues per month. About 65% of PLN's subscribers are state and federal prisoners, and PLN has incarcerated subscribers in all fifty states. Based on PLN's media pack, each subscriber's magazine is read by an average of almost 10 people, so PLN’s monthly readership is around 70,000. As of February 2013, subscriptions were $30/year for prisoners, $35/year for non-incarcerated individuals and $90/year for attorneys, government agencies and corporations.
Prison Legal News also distributes legal reference and self-help educational books, ranging from their own in-house-published The Habeas Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel by Brandon Sample and the Prisoners’ Guerilla Handbook: Guide to Correspondence Programs in the United States & Canada by Jon Marc Taylor, to the Nolo legal how-to series and the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual. PLN also distributes (free upon request) the Prisoner Diabetes Handbook, and is the exclusive distributor of a book published by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled "Protecting Your Health & Safety: A Litigation Guide for Inmates."
PLN has long been involved in litigation concerning First Amendment and censorship issues in the prison and jail context, with the first case occurring in 1994. Then co-editor Ed Mead was prevented from assisting in publishing Prison Legal News due to a condition of his parole to not associate with other felons – a policy specifically enacted to prevent Mr. Mead from further involvement with PLN. See: Mead v. ISRB, USDC (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:94-cv-00529.
In 1997, PLN, represented by the ACLU of Washington, joined with other publishers and prisoner plaintiffs in a suit challenging the Washington DOC’s wide-ranging censorship of incoming mail, publications and mail classifications, among other issues. The lawsuit was settled in 2000, with the state agreeing to change its censorship policies and pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees and costs. See: Humanists of Washington v. Lehman, USDC (W.D. Wash.), Case No. 3:97-cv-05499-FDB-JKA.
Prison Legal News obtained a preliminary injunction against the Nevada DOC’s state-wide ban on PLN, followed by a consent decree in which the DOC agreed to pay damages and change its policies concerning mail and publications. The matter was settled in September 2000. See: PLN v. Crawford, USDC (D. Nev.), Case No. 3:00-cv-00373-HDM-RAM.
The Supermax ADX prison, run by the federal Bureau of Prisons, enacted a policy banning all books related to prisons and prisoners. PLN filed suit in 2003 and withdrew the lawsuit in 2005 after the ADX mooted the claim by changing its unconstitutional policy. See: PLN v. Hood, USDC (D. Col.), Case No. 1:03-cv-02516.
In 2006, PLN and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) settled the magazine’s claims that CDCR mail policies violated a number of PLN’s well-established federal and state rights. As a result of the settlement, CDCR ordered five-year subscriptions to PLN for all of its facilities and is under current monitoring by PLN for compliance. See: PLN v. Schwarzenegger, 561 F.Supp.2d 1095 (N.D. Cal. 2008).
In 2012, PLN settled with the State of New York, reversing a state-wide ban on the magazine in New York prisons, and also settled with Berkeley County, South Carolina, reaching the largest ever jail-related censorship settlement in the United States, totaling almost $600,000 in damages and attorney fees. The U.S. Department of Justice joined PLN in its lawsuit against the unconstitutional mail policies enacted by Berkeley County.
In addition to battling unconstitutional censorship through litigation (see the May 2010 issue of PLN for a full listing of cases), Prison Legal News has also filed numerous lawsuits related to public records and Freedom of Information Act requests in order to pursue its investigative reporting on detention facility issues. These cases have led to landmark rulings including PLN v. Washington Department of Corrections, 115 P.3d 316 (Wash. 2005) which at that time was the largest penalty and attorney fee payout in a Washington state public records case in history and disclosed serious misconduct among Washington prison doctors. PLN v. Lappin held that PLN was entitled to fee waivers in Freedom of Information Act requests where the information sought would educate the public about government operations. PLN v. Lappin, 436 F. Supp.2d 17 (D DC 2006). Additional cases include: PLN v. The Geo Group, Inc., Circuit Court of the 15th Judicial Circuit of Florida, Case No. 50 2005 CA 011195 AA; Friedmann v. CCA, Chancery Court for Davidson County (TN), Case No. 01-1105-I; and PLN v. EOUSA, USDC (D. Col.), Case No. 1:08-cv-01055-MSK.
 Recent Developments and Advocacy
Originally founded as Prisoners Legal News, in 2009 PLN’s parent organization was renamed the Human Rights Defense Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of people held in U.S. detention facilities. HRDC also supports Prison Legal News in national campaigns in coordination with other advocacy groups to lower prison phone rates; to demand transparency and accountability of private prison contractors ; and with numerous other activities related to the human rights of prisoners.
PLN’s editor and managing editor are former prisoners, and the magazine features contributions from nationally-recognized scholars and activists involved in criminal justice reform or advocacy efforts. Some of these contributors include Mumia Abu Jamal, Noam Chomsky, Marie Gottschalk, Prison Policy Initiative Director Peter Wagner, Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter and ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi. The bulk of PLN’s content is written by current and former prisoners. As of 2013, Prison Legal News has published continuously for 23 years.
- 1. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/FAQ.aspx
- 2. PLN May 2010, Vol. 21, No. 5 page 3 https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/22305_displayArticle.aspx
- 3. Media Pack http://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news_media_web.pdf
- 4. http://www.prisonlegalnews.org/news_media_web.pdf
- 5. Prison Legal News, Book List; www.prisonlegalnews.org
- 6. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/129_ProductDetails.aspx
- 7. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/111_ProductDetails.aspx
- 8. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/128_ProductDetails.aspx
- 9. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/112_ProductDetails.aspx
- 10. http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Words-land-behind-bars-3745178.php
- 11. http://www.nlg-npap.org/news/prison-legal-news-settles-censorship-suit-against-berkeley-county-detention-center
- 12. http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/documents/prisonlegalnews_briefinsupportPI_05-23-11.pdf
- 13. https://www.prisonlegalnews.org/22305_displayArticle.aspx
- 14. http://www.afro.com/sections/news/afro_briefs/story.htm?storyid=76718
- 15. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/05/ex-con-alex-friedmann-cca-private-prison-rape
- 16. Abu-Jamal, Mumia,”Prison Legal News at 15” Prison Legal News, July 2005, Vol.16, No.7, page 11.
- 17. Chomsky, Noam, “Drug Policy as Social Control,” Prison Legal News, May 1997, Vol.8, No.5, page 12.
- 18. Gottschalk, Marie, “Days Without End: Life Sentences and Penal Reform,” Prison Legal News, Jan. 2012, Vol.23, No. 1, page 1.
- 19. Wagner, Peter, “Ending Prison-Based Gerrymandering” Prison Legal News, Dec. 2012, Vol.23, No.12, page 1.
- 20. Spector, Donald, “Everything Revolves Around Overcrowding: The State of California’s Prisons,” Prison Legal News, Aug. 2010, Vol. 21, No.8, page 1.
- 21. Fathi, David, “The New Asylum: Supermax as Warehouse for the Mentally Ill,” Prison Legal News, July 2007, Vol.18, No.7, page 1.
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