Since its first issue, slapped together in a prison cell two decades ago, Prison Legal News has run hundreds of articles on abuse and corruption in local jails and state and federal prisons, shining a light where few of the ladies and gents of the mainstream press care (or dare) to go.
One of the maverick monthly's boldest moves has been to take on the federal government over video materials related to a gruesome inmate-on-inmate slaying in the high-security U.S. Penitentiary in Florence. Although the materials were presented in two death-penalty trials, to an audience of horrified jurors and reporters, the U.S. Attorney's Office has opposed their release.
The case is now in front of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals -- and PLN is no longer alone in contending that release of the video involves an important constitutional right of public access to court records.
Westword, which covered the murder of Joey Estrella long before the case went to trial, has joined in a supporting brief filed this week in the case, along with other amici curae ("friends of the court") -- including 60 Minutes, the Associated Press, the American Society of News Editors and the ACLU of Colorado. Prepared with the aid of Yale Law School professor Scott Shuchart, the brief argues that government recordings played in open court become part of the judicial record and should be made available to the public.
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The case dates back to the 1999 slaying and disemboweling of Estrella by two other inmates in the Special Housing Unit of USP Florence, supposedly the most secure cellblock in the entire prison. Correctional staff who responded to the incident took video of intoxicated cousins William and Rudy Sablan displaying their victim's entrails in the cell and taunting their captors. The shocking event -- hardly the only murder at the troubled prison -- raised numerous questions about how the two were able to obtain the booze, sharp weapons and time to commit such a crime, as well as why staff were triple-bunking inmates in an alleged "protective custody" unit.
After years of delays in the prosecution of the case, both of the Sablans were convicted of murder but spared the death penalty -- yet many of the most embarrassing questions about the prison's management lingered even after the lengthy trials. Hence PLN's interest in obtaining the videos, and our interest in supporting that effort -- particularly given the increasing restrictions on local court records in this state.
Fittingly enough, the filing comes as the monthly is preparing to celebrate its twentieth anniversary. PLN editor Paul Wright recalls that a Washington State Penitentiary warden once told him that there was no need to censor his hand-typed, ten-page newsletter because it was "too radical and outmoded" and "wouldn't last six months."
"That was twenty years ago," Wright reflects in a recent message to readers. "In addition to having outlasted pretty much every other independent prisoners' rights publication in US history, we have also outlasted a lot of the corporate media."