Inmate-turned-journalist Paul Wright on what he’s learned in his 25 years covering the prison system.
In 1987, 21-year-old Paul Wright entered a maximum-security prison in Washington state for first-degree murder. Wright, then a military police officer, was incarcerated after he attempted to rob a cocaine dealer by the name of Curtis Smith. During the hold-up, Smith pulled his own gun, and Wright shot first. Wright unsuccessfully claimed self-defense in court and spent the next 17 years in prison. He was released in 2003. Wright used much of his time behind bars reporting and litigating for a monthly magazine about the criminal system that he co-founded called Prison Legal News. The first issue was published in May of 1990, and PLN is now approaching its 25th anniversary. The magazine has evolved since its early days as a 10-page newsletter with fewer than 100 prospective subscribers; it’s now 64 pages with 7,000 subscribers (and more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors to its website.) Wright has also written three books and leads the Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit organization sustained, in part, by attorney’s fees and damages from its prisoner-rights litigation. He spoke with The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo by phone about his past, the prison reform movement, and changes in America’s prison system since he first started reporting on it a quarter-century ago.