How Oregon's Prison System Retaliated Against Its Most Effective Jailhouse Lawyer

Mark Wilson taught himself the law and helped thousands of other prisoners pursue legal claims, including lawsuits that cost the state millions of dollars. Then he was given one of the harshest punishments available within Oregon prisons.
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Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/AP/Oregon Justice Resource Center

One-hundred and twenty days in solitary confinement is one of the harshest punishments available within Oregon prisons. It’s the type of punishment given to people who commit assault or arson, take a hostage or try to escape. It’s also the punishment imposed on Mark Wilson, a prominent incarcerated legal assistant with a near-perfect disciplinary record who has helped thousands of other prisoners pursue legal claims. 

Wilson’s offense? A prison staff member had left a plastic toy telephone with blue wheels and a smiley face on his desk — a joking reference to the number of calls Wilson fielded at work. More than a year later, Oregon’s Department of Corrections said the toy phone was evidence that Wilson had “compromised” the employee who gave it to him. They fired him from his job, and subjected him to a punishment defined by the United Nations as torture. 

A HuffPost investigation — based on hundreds of pages of court documents, emails and audio recordings of Wilson’s disciplinary hearings obtained through public records requests, as well as extensive interviews with Wilson, prisoners he has assisted and lawyers he has worked with — reveals a pattern of retaliation by DOC against one of its most effective incarcerated legal assistants.  

People who are incarcerated have a constitutional right to challenge their criminal cases and conditions of confinement. But for many, this right only exists on paper. Court-appointed attorneys are only guaranteed in specific circumstances, leaving many who want to challenge their sentences, introduce new evidence or sue over prison conditions left to navigate the court system on their own. Throughout the country, legal assistants like Wilson offer many prisoners their only opportunity to access the courts by advising them on their rights, drafting legal documents, and walking them through the litigation process. In Oregon prisons, the job pays $77 a month and is open to incarcerated people with a high school diploma or GED. Knowledge of the legal system is not required, and the quality of assistance varies widely. 

During his decades of work as a legal assistant, Wilson established a reputation as one of the best at his job. In conversation, he cites case numbers, prison rules and statutes from memory. Those who have relied on him for help say he is exceedingly compassionate and trustworthy. Bar-licensed lawyers say they have learned about prisoners rights litigation through reading his court filings. He has helped people with everything from divorce proceedings to accessing life-saving medical care to getting out of prison. The lawsuits he has helped bring against Oregon’s DOC over conditions of confinement have cost the department millions of dollars. 

Oregon’s Corrections Department claims to encourage this kind of behavior. “The Oregon Way,” the department says on its website, “is a philosophical approach to corrections” rooted in “humanizing and normalizing the prison environment.” In 2017, a group of corrections staffers and state lawmakers traveled to Norway to tour the country’s prisons, which are known to treat the incarcerated more humanely than those in the U.S. Part of the goal of that trip, according to DOC’s website, was to find ways to reduce the use of “special housing,” a euphemistic term that includes solitary confinement. After that trip, the state legislature officially changed all statutory references to “inmate” to “adult in custody.” 

“Words are powerful and they matter,” DOC Director Colette Peters said in written testimony in support of the wording change. 

It was in the spirit of creating a humane and normalized environment that Wilson’s boss, library coordinator Pam McKinney, put the toy phone on his desk, she later said. DOC has not provided compelling evidence that Wilson “compromised” McKinney or coerced her into doing anything inappropriate. Without that evidence, the department’s actions have the appearance of a retaliation campaign, aimed at blocking Wilson from helping other prisoners access the courts.

In doing so, DOC has not only punished Wilson but also deprived the rest of the people imprisoned at the Oregon State Correctional Institution of a valuable resource. 

“That’s basically how DOC wants it,” said a friend of Wilson’s who is also incarcerated at OSCI and requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “The less people who are competent and can navigate the legal world, the less they’re going to be held accountable. That’s by design.” 

Oregon’s Department of Corrections declined to respond to a detailed list of questions, citing pending litigation. 

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Library coordinator Pam McKinney gave incarcerated legal assistant Mark Wilson a toy phone that looked like this one — a joking reference to the number of calls he received at work. Oregon's Department of Corrections later cited the toy as evidence that Wilson had "compromised" McKinney.
Wilson v. Plante complaint

Wilson, 53, has spent most of his life in Oregon prisons. When he was 18 and addicted to methamphetamine, he took part in a double homicide during a home burglary. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two life sentences. He didn’t expect to ever leave prison, and helping others with their legal problems seemed like a good way to contribute something positive from behind bars.

“I think he was trying to make right what he had done wrong,” said Michelle Burrows, a civil rights lawyer who has worked closely with Wilson. “And I think he was trying to make life better because of his presence in it.” 

In 2000, a man came to Wilson in the law library with tears in his eyes. He told Wilson that the DOC was refusing to treat his hepatitis C. 

The prison doctor told the man, “We all have to die of something,” Wilson later recalled in an interview. 

The man wanted Wilson’s help. 

At the time, Oregon’s Corrections Department estimated that 30% of its prison population — approximately 3,000 people — had hepatitis C. It was one of the leading causes of death in Oregon prisons, but the department used a series of justifications to deny treatment: being too sick, too old, too close to release, having a history of depression, or recent drug use, to name a few. 

Wilson knew how to approach the litigation, but he wanted a licensed attorney to file the case so that it would be taken more seriously in court. He drafted a detailed letter explaining the case and sent it to a lawyer he knew through restorative justice work, who passed it along to Burrows. 

Burrows didn’t feel particularly qualified to take on the case, but she was intrigued by Wilson’s letter so she arranged to visit him at the Oregon State Penitentiary. “Mark, I’ve never done any prisoner work. I’ve never done a medical case. And I’ve never done a class-action,” she told him.  

Wilson didn’t care. He just needed someone with a bar number to file the complaint. “I’ll hold your hand and walk you through it,” he promised. 

Burrows filed suit in November 2001. There were signs of retaliation almost immediately. Wilson was placed in solitary confinement two weeks later, after a DOC staffer accused him of misconduct for attending an event he had permission to be at. The allegation was later dismissed.

The prisoners with hepatitis C grew increasingly ill as they fought in court for medical treatment. Wilson volunteered in the prison’s hospice, and some of the people he had helped in the law library later became his patients. 

The parties reached a settlement after two and a half years of litigation, which led to the creation of a panel of experts to review DOC’s hepatitis C treatment policies and make recommendations for the department to implement. By then, the lead plaintiff in the litigation, a man named Rodger Anstett, had died of complications from untreated hepatitis C. Wilson raised $2,000 in donations from others incarcerated in the prison to help Anstett’s family pay for his burial. 

Wilson’s efforts to expand hepatitis C treatment in Oregon prisons would save lives in the years to come, at a high financial cost to DOC: The department reported spending more than $13 million on hepatitis C medication in 2017. 

Months after the settlement, Wilson was removed from his cell at 4 a.m. and transferred from the Oregon State Penitentiary, a prison in Salem, Oregon, to Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution, a facility four hours away. The transfer put Wilson far from his family and into a unit where violence was frequent. 

When Wilson asked about getting a job at EOCI’s law library, the coordinator told him, “They will never hire you to work in this library.” He applied anyway, and he said he was passed over for someone with no legal experience. He received letters from people imprisoned at OSP who told him that staff there claimed Wilson was a “troublemaker” who was sent out east because “he was pretending to be an attorney.”

Even without the official title, Wilson continued quietly helping. People in prison face a morass of bureaucratic options and obligations that can be hopelessly confusing without a lawyer’s active guidance. Some people give up, even when their freedom might be on the line. Wilson helped people stay on track. One night in 2006, he ran into Ray Jones, who expected to spend the rest of his life in prison for a crime he committed when he was 16. 

“When is your rehabilitation hearing?” Wilson asked Jones. 

“My what?” Jones said. 

“Go get your paperwork,” Wilson said. 

“So I got my paperwork and he was like, ‘Jesus Christ, dude, you’ve been eligible for reviews for years,’” said Jones, who got out of prison in 2012.  “He lit a fire under my ass.” 

Wilson sued Oregon’s Corrections Department for retaliation in 2006 and eventually reached a settlement that transferred him back to Salem to the Oregon State Correctional Institution. He didn’t seek financial compensation — he just wanted to be close to his family again and to be left alone. He now thinks that was a mistake. 

“Money damages seem to be the only thing that gets their attention,” he said. 

Burrows, who helped Wilson with his retaliation suit, warned him this wasn’t the end. “I said, ‘Mark, you know, they’re gonna wait an appropriate amount of time, and then they’re gonna come back after you again.’” 

In 1977, the Supreme Court held that prison officials have an affirmative duty to ensure the people in prison have an ability to file meaningful legal papers with the courts, either by providing them with law libraries or assistance from people trained in the law. It was a pivotal decision because, as Wilson puts it, “There are no rights at all without the right to access the courts.” 

“Every right that a prisoner has today — to medical care, to religious practice, to adequate food, clothing, shelter, temperature, hygiene and all this stuff has all been because, at some point along the way, some prison official somewhere has denied those basic human dignities to a prisoner. And they litigated over it and a court said, ‘No, that is a basic right that a prisoner has,’” Wilson said. “We don’t have rights because prison officials decided we deserve these things.” 

Over the years, the Oregon DOC has taken steps to make it harder for Wilson and other incarcerated legal assistants to help their clients. Prisoners are now restricted from writing grievances for other prisoners, as Wilson did on behalf of some of the men in the hepatitis C lawsuit. Incarcerated legal assistants are also prohibited from working for attorneys, and are only allowed to help prisoners who are not capable of doing their own legal research and document preparation. 

Some of the rules are written so vaguely that it’s difficult to discern what is actually allowed. Does the prohibition on legal assistants working for attorneys only restrict compensation or all forms of collaboration? What does it mean to not be “capable” of doing one’s own legal work? Prisons are filled with people who have language barriers, intellectual disabilities or mental illnesses, or who are illiterate. How is a legal assistant supposed to assess whether someone who asks for help actually “needs” it? 

That blurry language shows up in many DOC policies, granting prison staffers the discretion to arbitrarily decide what falls within the rules and what constitutes a high-consequence violation. Even with these restrictions, Wilson devoted himself entirely to the job. 

After his 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. shift, he continued working in his cell most nights. He became the de facto leader of the handful of legal assistants at OSCI tasked with helping the roughly 800 people locked up inside, and each day brought a new series of crises to juggle and prioritize. Wilson and his colleagues could occasionally convince an outside lawyer to take on a case pro bono, but when that failed, they took on the work themselves. 

The work of incarcerated legal assistants goes beyond writing legal documents. They are the ones who tell people when they don’t have a winnable case. They are a sounding board for fears of retaliation. They offer guidance on navigating the complicated internal grievance process that needs to be exhausted in order to have standing in court. In cases of sexual assault, they are often the only people in prison the victim can trust with the allegations. 

“It’s impossible not to just be working on this stuff all the time,” Wilson said. 

“There are no rights at all without the right to access the courts.”

- Mark Wilson

In 2017, Wilson got a new boss. Her name was Pam McKinney and she had worked at DOC for about 20 years by the time she became the library coordinator at OSCI. She went out of her way to make the law library feel like a safe and inviting space for people to seek help. She hung up pictures and inspirational quotes, brought in plants, set up a small fish bowl, and wore reindeer horns on her head around Christmas. 

“It was in the spirit of jest that I brought in a toy plastic phone (the kind that has eyes, and that can be used as a pull toy by a small child) and placed it on AIC Wilson’s work desk,” McKinney later wrote in a court declaration, using shorthand for the “adult in custody” terminology the prison system had adopted. “It was all in my effort to create the ‘Oregon Way’ environment.’”

When Wilson found the toy phone on his desk in January 2020, he laughed politely and moved it onto a nearby shelf, where it remained for nearly a year. Soon after, the coronavirus pandemic hit Oregon’s prisons, making it even more difficult for Wilson and his colleagues to keep up with their work. The postal service was so overwhelmed that paperwork would often reach the courts, parole board and lawyers’ offices past deadlines. Even if the paperwork got there on time, most lawyers weren’t in their offices to receive mail. In the interest of meeting deadlines, McKinney allowed Wilson to give her legal documents to scan and send out over email. 

By early 2021, Wilson was working on several high-stakes lawsuits that had major implications for DOC. He was assisting seven people who accused DOC of denying them medical care and two people who accused DOC of failing to protect them from a known risk of sexual assault. He was communicating with outside lawyers about how to respond to DOC’s haphazard wildfire evacuations the previous year, which resulted in people who had left gangs being assaulted by current gang members. He was also preparing a class-action case on behalf of prisoners whose medical records were breached — a case that Wilson estimates will cost the Corrections Department $1.5 million if the plaintiffs succeed. 

On Jan. 19, 2021, at 6:30 a.m., as Wilson was preparing to go to work, he was unexpectedly called into the officer’s station in his unit. There, Capt. Jonathan Hyde told him he was under investigation and had been suspended from his job in the law library. Hyde sent Wilson back to his cell, without providing any information about the reason for the investigation. 

Later that morning, Wilson was called into another meeting with Hyde and DOC investigator Jerry Plante. Plante and Wilson had known each other for years; Plante worked at OSP back when Wilson was working on the hepatitis C case there. Plante told Wilson he had searched his work area and gave him a confiscation slip for the toy phone. Plante was friendly and gave Wilson no indication that he was in trouble. But around 10 p.m. that day, Wilson received a notice under his door, informing him that he had been removed from his job as a legal assistant. 

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Courtesy of Mark Wilson/Oregon Justice Resource Center

Two days later, McKinney was escorted out of the prison and assigned to a new job at a different facility. Plante and Hyde met with Wilson again and told him that the investigation was related to an anonymous tip submitted by a prisoner nearly seven weeks earlier. Plante said he would complete the investigation quickly and advised Wilson not to help anyone with their legal matters in the meantime. Wilson returned to his cell and began to wait. After years of constant work, he was stuck with nothing to do, no way to pass the time.

Later that month, the remaining legal assistants told Wilson that Plante and Hyde had taken all of the flash drives they used to store their work — including confidential material about cases they were working on with their clients. When Wilson told Plante that his clients were nervous about their private legal material being seized, Plante confirmed that the flash drives would be searched as part of the investigation. 

Wilson ran into Plante in early March and said he wanted to hire a polygraph examiner to vindicate him of wrongdoing. Wilson knew that polygraphs were notoriously unreliable, but he also knew that DOC had, at one point, had faith in them. DOC asked him to take one in 1999 after guards found weapons hidden in the lock column between his cell and the one next door. The polygraph “established that he had nothing to do with the weapons,” according to a copy of the 1999 disciplinary finding. 

But Plante told Wilson there was no need for a polygraph. “I trust you, I know you’re not going to lie to me. Just relax,” Wilson recalled Plante telling him. 

Plante interviewed Wilson as part of his investigation on March 23, 2021. He told Wilson that the only part of the anonymous tip that involved him was an allegation that McKinney was helping him sue the corrections department, Wilson said. 

Still, Plante’s tone was friendly. He said Wilson was good at his job and that he took pride in his job, too. “He said if he needed a lawyer and I was out in the community, he’d want to hire me,” Wilson said. “Just a bunch of BS.” 

Weeks later, Plante called McKinney into a conference room for questioning that lasted about four hours. 

He “interrogated me in a way that made me feel like he was on a mission,” McKinney wrote in a court declaration in October. Plante accused her of breaking mundane policies, like allowing incarcerated legal assistants to have printers assigned to them — a practice McKinney said predated her tenure. He claimed that by emailing legal documents for Wilson without reading their contents, McKinney had been “compromised” by Wilson. When McKinney tried to explain that staff are not supposed to read legal mail, Plante “appeared not to care,” she wrote. Plante framed the toy phone as evidence that McKinney and Wilson “had something going.” 

McKinney did not feel compromised by Wilson. But worn down by the interrogation and fearful of losing her income, she felt pressured to agree to Plante’s claims, she wrote later in the declaration. 

“I felt like I was being ‘herded into a narrative,’ which was that AIC Wilson was a manipulator and ‘the devil,’” McKinney wrote. “I believe that DOC was pushing this narrative because AIC Wilson had won a lawsuit against them in the past, and they were worried that he would be successful again.”

McKinney resigned from her job in April after being advised that she risked losing part of her retirement if she stayed. DOC disapproved of Wilson’s legal work and “I am collateral damage,” she wrote. Through her lawyer, McKinney declined a request for an interview. 

Even though the investigation was ongoing, Wilson started to get the sense that the outcome had already been determined. In April, one of his clients told then-assistant superintendent Gerald Long that he had a court deadline approaching and asked if Wilson would be back at the law library soon. Long told Wilson’s client that he needed to find another resource because the people at DOC headquarters weren’t going to let Wilson return to work, Wilson said. Long was one of the named defendants on Wilson’s 2006 retaliation lawsuit. 

Wilson finally received a formal misconduct report on Aug. 4, more than six months after being suspended from his job. In the report, Plante charged Wilson with violating four DOC rules: compromising an employee, contraband, unauthorized use of information systems, and disobedience of an order. The report made no mention of the allegation that McKinney was helping Wilson sue DOC.  

“I was stunned,” Wilson said. “I was just shocked. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

“I believe that DOC was pushing this narrative because AIC Wilson had won a lawsuit against them in the past, and they were worried that he would be successful again.”

- Pam McKinney

Plante’s justification for the charges strained logic. He cited the toy phone as contraband, even though it was only in Wilson’s workspace because McKinney had placed it there. He claimed that Wilson “knowingly took advantage of Ms. McKinney by engaging in an unauthorized personal relationship” but failed to provide compelling evidence of an inappropriate relationship. 

Plante claimed in the report that McKinney answered “yes” when asked if she had been compromised — omitting the extensive coercion that had led to her answer. He described the toy phone, Wilson saying McKinney was “helpful,” and McKinney sending and receiving emails to and from lawyers rather than directing Wilson to go through the mail as proof of a personal relationship. 

“Not one time did they come in and search my cell for letters, for anything she might have given me,” Wilson said. “They never searched my cell, which is an indication that they knew damn well there was no relationship.” 

In Oregon prisons, misconduct allegations are adjudicated through a disciplinary hearing. But unlike court hearings, the individual accused of wrongdoing has no right to a lawyer or even a meaningful opportunity to prepare a defense. Wilson’s hearing was scheduled for Aug. 10, just six days after he learned for the first time what he was accused of doing. Still, Wilson tried his best to defend himself. In accordance with DOC rules, he submitted a 47-page handwritten motion ahead of the hearing, in which he requested the appearances of 20 witnesses and included questions for each witness. He also asked to take a polygraph test at his own expense. 

Wilson entered the hearing room with an envelope full of documents he planned to reference in his defense. A guard took the envelope from him, handcuffed him behind his back, locked him in a cage, and told him to sit on a stool in front of a computer screen, where DOC hearings officer Ronnie Foss participated via videoconference. The guard placed Wilson’s documents outside of the cage, where he could not reach them. 

At one point, Wilson asked the guard outside of his cage to hold up a document he had brought so he could read it aloud to Foss. The guard pulled the wrong document, but Wilson didn’t bother to correct him. He couldn’t get close enough to read the paperwork anyway. 

“I felt like they tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me and then said, ‘OK, go ahead and try to defend yourself now,’” Wilson said. 

There is no presumption of innocence in these disciplinary hearings. In fact, Foss acted more like a prosecutor than a judge who was there to review the facts and make a determination. When Wilson tried to explain how refusing to help people who sought his assistance because they might be capable of doing their own legal work could subject him to physical violence and create a black market for jailhouse lawyers, Foss cut him off. 

“Let me explain something to you,” she said, according to an audio recording of the hearing HuffPost obtained through a public records request. “I’ve worked in prison for almost 20 years. I know what the threat to the safety, security of the institution is. So, you don’t have to go drone on about it, I already know.” 

Foss said she had not had time to review his witness requests and denied the request for a polygraph, claiming DOC doesn’t allow them. (DOC declined to respond to a question about its polygraph policies; Wilson is not aware of any prohibition on the use of polygraphs.)

Wilson returned to the hearing room three weeks later, and got back in the cage, with his hands cuffed and his prepared materials again out of reach. When Wilson insisted he couldn’t mount his defense without the witnesses, Foss agreed to schedule a second hearing to allow her time to consider interviewing the witnesses before making a final determination.

“I’m not talking to other AICs because I have plenty of staff to talk to,” Foss said, suggesting a belief that incarcerated people are inherently less reliable than prison staffers. “I am not talking to anyone from the Oregon Justice Resource Center as what they have to tell me is absolutely irrelevant,” she added, referring to the civil rights organization where Wilson’s lawyer worked. 

About 30 minutes into the second hearing, Wilson gave up. “You’re going to do what you’re going to do, so whatever,” he said. “We’ll just let the federal court sort it out at this point.” 

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Oregon State Correctional Institution, the prison where Mark Wilson is currently incarcerated.
Landsat/Copernicus/Google Earth

Foss found Wilson guilty of three of the charges: compromising an employee, possessing contraband and unauthorized use of information systems. He was sentenced to 120 days in solitary confinement, the lengthiest solitary confinement sentence for a single charge available in Oregon prisons. (DOC allows a sentence of up to 180 days for multiple charges of wrongdoing.)

The United Nations’ “Mandela Rules” define solitary confinement as “the confinement of prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human contact.” Solitary confinement for more than 15 days is torture, according to the U.N. There is extensive research documenting how even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can cause long-term physical and psychological harm, including insomnia, fatigue, migraines, anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and suicide. 

“It was just devastating,” Wilson said. “I’m fully aware of the large body of research about the negative psychological impact of solitary confinement on people, and I wasn’t excited about getting to feel that experientially.” 

A guard opened a door on the side of Wilson’s cage that led directly into the solitary confinement unit. Wilson was placed into another cage, strip-searched, and eventually placed into an 8-foot-by-8-foot cell, where he would spend nearly every minute of the next four months. There was a steel bed with a thin mattress on top, an open toilet 6 inches from the head of the bed, a sink and a stool and table mounted to the wall.   

The first thing Wilson did when he got to segregation was create a calendar, starting with Aug. 31 and ending with Dec. 28, so he could mark off each day as it passed. Unlike many people in solitary confinement, Wilson had friends and family on the outside who sent him books and newspapers, which also helped him keep track of time. He spent hours reading and doing crossword puzzles.

“Just a complete waste of time,” Wilson said. “I like to be doing something meaningful, with a purpose — and, of course, that was all gone.” 

There were 12 cells on the tier. With nothing else to do, the individuals locked inside would often yell for hours at a time. When the guards got tired of hearing it, they turned on a large exhaust fan that sounded like a “jet engine,” Wilson said. Sometimes, people would just yell louder in an effort to be heard over the fan. Wilson rarely slept more than an hour or two at a time. 

For the first 38 days, Wilson had no access to toothpaste or shampoo. Prisoners aren’t allowed to bring any of their own personal items into solitary, and they can’t purchase hygiene products until they’ve been there for 30 days. Wilson placed his order on his 30th day, but he said it took an additional eight days for the items to reach him. So for more than a month, he brushed his teeth with baking soda and washed his hair with the small capful of industrial-smelling soap he was provided at each shower. 

“That’s their policy,” Wilson said of the Corrections Department. “How humanizing is the policy that uses hygiene as punishment?” 

During his 120 days in solitary, Wilson only left his cell for 10-minute showers three times a week or when he received a legal call. Wilson could have also signed up for a “walk” five days a week, when he could pace back and forth on a 40-foot-long indoor dog run. After 30 days in solitary there was also supposed to be the option for outdoor recreation time, in a cage smaller than his cell — but Wilson only heard guards offer outdoor recreation about five times during his four-month punishment. Regardless, Wilson was uninterested in either form of “recreation.”

“I felt like they were treating us like caged animals. It felt dehumanizing and degrading,” he said. “It felt like a lion pacing back and forth in a cage. The fact that they treat you like that was just so offensive to me that I’d rather sit in a cell.”

Some of the people on Wilson’s tier who requested medical and mental health support were told they could get help once they got out of solitary. The only thing prisoners had to look forward to was the mail, which arrived around 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Most people didn’t get any mail, but everyone waited for the mail call in anticipation anyway. 

“You can feel the depression come over the whole tier as maybe one or two guys get mail and nobody else does,” Wilson said. 

Wilson was one of the lucky ones. His friend who requested anonymity had previously spent time in solitary and knew how even small tokens could make each day more bearable. He sent Wilson 61 pieces of mail, each containing a photograph of something beautiful and a note providing updates about life in the prison’s general population. By Wilson’s calculations, the postage and envelopes cost his friend, who made $77 a month in prison, about $45.

“Those letters were a lifeline,” Wilson said. “They were hugely important to keeping my sanity.” 

Wilson got to his solitary cell in the summer, stayed through the fall, and remained there for part of winter. As the cold weather set in, the temperatures inside the solitary cells dropped to what felt like the 30s or 40s. Wilson mentioned the frigid temperatures to Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, an organization that provides legal representation to underserved communities. Singh passed along the information to Oregon state Sen. Michael Dembrow (D), who knew Wilson from a work group on education in prison. 

Dembrow emailed DOC’s government relations manager, Marie Garcia, and Peters, the director of the department. He said he had received a report that the heat in OSCI’s segregation unit wasn’t working and asked them to look into it. 

Garcia agreed to check. “I am happy to report, the heating system is working properly. As of this morning, the temperature registered at 65-66 degrees,” she wrote back later that week.

“The next thing we know,” Wilson said, “the heat went from the 40s up to about 100 degrees.” 

“Well, somebody let a legislator know there was a problem with the heat,” a guard announced to the tier. 

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Mark Wilson with his parents at his commencement ceremony for his bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon, held at Oregon State Correctional Institution.
Courtesy Mark Wilson/Oregon Justice Resource Center

The remaining legal assistants who were left to take on Wilson’s cases struggled to keep up. It wasn’t just that they were down a guy — they were without the guy who had taught them much of what they knew about the law and prisoners rights. 

“I always looked to him as a guide or a mentor whenever I was stuck,” an incarcerated legal assistant who took on most of Wilson’s cases said in an interview. 

That legal assistant, who requested anonymity out of fear that he, too, would face retaliation, said DOC officials held on to the legal assistants’ flash drives for months, making it difficult to work on cases they had picked up before Wilson’s investigation. 

The law library also didn’t feel so safe anymore. It was briefly closed for remodeling, and when it reopened, legal reference material and books had been discarded. Things were rearranged so that legal assistants no longer had privacy to discuss sensitive cases with their clients. Knowing that DOC officials had likely read the material on the legal assistants’ flash drives had a chilling effect. 

“Obviously, I’m not a lawyer, but there is an expectation of privacy that my clients have when they talk to me,” said the legal assistant who took on Wilson’s cases. 

The legal assistant said he believes Wilson lost his job and was thrown in solitary confinement because he was too good in his role and cost DOC too much money. That puts him in a difficult position: By continuing to do his job the best he can, he also risks getting punished. 

“When I see what happened to Mark, what’s to stop them from coming in and swooping me up the same way?” he said. 

A second legal assistant, who also requested anonymity, said in an interview that he tries to avoid working on cases against DOC “because it puts too much heat on you.” 

One of Wilson’s clients was a 33-year-old man named Tod Bailey, who broke his wrist in 2018 and was unable to get medical care for months. As a result of the delayed care, Bailey had to undergo two surgeries and can no longer bend his wrist backward. Wilson was able to pass Bailey’s case to an outside lawyer, and the state was required to pay Bailey $75,000 as part of a settlement. 

Not all of Wilson’s clients were able to move forward with their cases without him. George Nulph, who is 70 and legally blind, had relied on Wilson for legal assistance since the early 1990s. Nulph, who is in prison for a homicide and rape conviction, said in an interview that Wilson was one of the few people he could trust with the details of his case. People with sex offense convictions are commonly targeted for violence in prisons. 

“Mark read all the legal reports, the police reports, the psychological evaluations — everything that bares your life and soul,” Nulph said. “And there was no judgment.” 

When Wilson was dismissed from his job, Nulph had two court cases pending against the parole board — either of which could move up his release date. Without access to their flash drives, the remaining legal assistants were unable to pick up where Wilson left off. Nulph missed filing deadlines and both cases were tossed out of court. 

“It was a sinking, hopeless feeling,” Nulph said of finding out his cases were dismissed. “Your existence in prison is really just one of hope. You hope something’s going to happen.” 

“It was an even worse feeling to know that Mark wasn’t there to kind of help pick up the pieces,” Nulph said. 

On Nov. 4, Wilson filed suit in federal court, accusing DOC officials of retaliation “for his protected conduct as an inmate legal assistant, prison advocate, and for his efforts to access the courts in his own case.” The complaint included a picture of the toy phone that DOC claimed was evidence of Wilson compromising McKinney. This time, Wilson is asking for monetary damages, as well as to be reinstated to his job and for the misconduct report to be vacated. 

The DOC officials named in the suit deny retaliating against Wilson. In a court filing, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum dismissed the lawsuit as an effort by OJRC — the civil rights group representing Wilson — to “broaden its access into prison affairs through a coordinated effort” with Wilson. 

“That effort would have this Court transform Plaintiff’s formerly authorized work assignment as a legal assistant into a new and improper role, which would enable Plaintiff to act as an inside agent for OJRC,” Rosenblum wrote in the court filing. “This lawsuit is a thinly disguised attempt by OJRC and Wilson to circumvent the rule of law.”

Katharine Edwards, then an early-career lawyer, read about the lawsuit in an article in The Oregonian. Edwards first got in contact with Wilson in late 2020, when she was looking for help with a case involving a transgender woman at OSCI who alleged that staff had failed to protect her from a series of physical and sexual assaults by cellmate. Edwards could not visit her client or even set up legal calls as often as she needed.  

“I felt sort of helpless to help my client,” Edwards said. “Mark became a really important resource — to have someone I could trust, who my client could trust.” 

Wilson helped Edwards’ client, who asked to be referred to only as D.A., navigate the prison’s “confusing and obstructive” grievance system, Edwards said. Next, Wilson wrote the first draft of D.A.’s complaint, which he stored on a flash drive provided by the law library. The draft complaint named several DOC employees as defendants, including Hyde, who was involved in removing Wilson from his job. 

After Wilson’s flash drives were confiscated, D.A. started having trouble with DOC staff. Last April, she was handcuffed, arrested and placed in solitary confinement with no explanation, according to a complaint filed in February. After a month in solitary, D.A. was told that another prisoner had accused her of fondling his penis, which D.A. denied. The allegations were eventually deemed unsubstantiated and D.A. was released after 11 weeks in solitary. 

Six months later, D.A. received a misconduct report, accusing her of consensually kissing a different prisoner, which she also denied. DOC officials claimed that the kiss was caught on security footage, but when Edwards got the footage, it only showed D.A. and the other individual talking, with D.A. wearing a mask the whole time, Edwards said. 

“I watched it from every angle I could find. Zoomed in, slowed down. There is absolutely no way anyone could think they were kissing.” (Edwards is not permitted to share the video footage, and DOC denied HuffPost’s public records request for a copy, claiming it “would allow adults in custody to avoid surveillance.”) Still, DOC staff found D.A. guilty, which resulted in her losing her job, honors housing and the ability to complete a vocational training program she had been pursuing. 

Edwards never understood why staff seemed to be targeting her client. But when she found out DOC officials had taken Wilson’s flash drives, things started to click into place. She now believes that DOC staffers retaliated against D.A. after reading on Wilson’s flash drive about her lawsuit plan. 

Oral arguments in Wilson’s ongoing federal retaliation case started on Dec. 6, while Wilson was still in solitary confinement. Judge Michael H. Simon said during the hearing that he didn’t see evidence of Wilson compromising McKinney. He questioned the state’s lawyer about the toy phone, as well as McKinney’s own assertions that Wilson did not push or manipulate her and that her actions were guided by her desire to facilitate legal access for prisoners. 

“I’m trying to figure out, what did Mr. Wilson do?” Simon asked at one point. 

Wilson dreaded spending Christmas in isolation. Throughout his 35 years of incarceration, he had called his grandmother and parents at least every week. After four months of no contact, he knew that not hearing from him on Christmas would be especially painful. He hated to bring them more pain. He didn’t know it at the time, but a sympathetic DOC staffer had tried to get him released a few days early so that he wouldn’t be alone on Christmas. The staffer later told Wilson that the early release plan was approved — only to get overridden at a higher level. 

After Wilson got out of solitary confinement, the state legislature’s House Judiciary Committee invited OJRC to appear at a public hearing to discuss the “jailhouse lawyer incident.” OJRC staff accepted the request, under the condition that Wilson would be allowed to participate over the phone and that DOC officials would not be present, Singh, the group’s executive director said. 

DOC officials opposed Wilson’s participation, but committee staff told OJRC they would explore using their subpoena power, if necessary. A committee agenda posted the day before the hearing lists Wilson and OJRC lawyer Juan Chavez as the only witnesses scheduled to testify. But when the video-conference hearing convened on Jan. 11, Wilson was not on the call. 

Instead, there was a surprise witness: DOC Director Colette Peters. 

Peters, who was the first to testify, framed the toy phone on Wilson’s desk as the first step in a slippery slope that inevitably would end in death. Having a toy phone is “against the law,” Peters said, because “that smaller criminal activity” leads “to the erosion of the safety of everyone, and often leads to further criminal behavior.” 

Even “our Norwegian friends,” Peters continued, referring to prison officials in Norway, prioritize security over “normalcy and humanity.” 

According to Peters, the superintendent of a maximum security prison in Norway offered her an ominous warning: “If you allow the chipping away of that base with even small things, maybe not today, but ultimately, that chipping away will result in the death of an employee or an adult in custody.”

With Wilson unable to respond, his lawyer stepped in, and noted Wilson’s absence. “The committee has the ability to subpoena witnesses, is that accurate?” Chavez asked.

“I would encourage you to tread carefully,” committee chair Janelle Bynum (D) responded.

Chavez moved on and walked lawmakers through the events that led to Wilson’s punishment in solitary confinement. Wilson’s disciplinary hearing “was a rubber-stamp ceremony to that ensure Mr. Wilson would be placed in segregation for 120 days,” Chavez said. “The implication here wasn’t subtle. Mr. Wilson had been assisting people bringing lawsuits against the Department of Corrections. And because of that, he was put into solitary confinement.” 

Chavez began to discuss DOC blocking Wilson from participating in the hearing, but Bynum interrupted him. There was “some level of outrage” at the length of Wilson’s time in solitary confinement and “whether there was indeed a case of retaliation,” Bynum said. But at least one member of the committee had asked her why lawmakers were even holding this hearing, she said. Bynum, herself, seemed unsure of the answer.

“It’s unclear to me how much oversight we provide of DOC,” she said. “But it was an issue that I felt at least should be talked about.” Bynum did not respond to a request for comment. 

When Wilson returned to the general population on Dec. 28, he had to start over entirely. Oregon’s prison system categorizes people into three levels. A prisoner’s level determines what kind of jobs they can have, what housing units they can live in, how often they have access to the phones, what kind of visits they’re allowed, and even what they’re allowed to purchase from the canteen. 

Everyone comes in as a Level 2, and the idea is the well-behaved people get promoted to Level 3 and troublemakers get demoted to Level 1. But because DOC staff can weaponize misconduct allegations, an individual’s level doesn’t always correspond with their conduct. 

Before the toy phone incident, Wilson was a Level 3 and had been for decades. The last time he was found guilty of misconduct was in 1991, when he was disciplined for protesting prison wages. But he left solitary confinement as a Level 1, a lower level than he had been at any point in his incarceration. 

It took Wilson nearly two months to find a job that would hire him as a Level 1, during which time he worried he would get shipped out to another prison for not having a job. He lost access to honors housing, where he had a close group of friends and regular access to the phone and yard. Honors housing also tends to be the safest place to live because most people there are trying to stay out of trouble. He had been taking master’s-level courses, but as a Level 1 he couldn’t take higher education courses. He can’t even buy a reading light until he’s a Level 3. 

Wilson, who was recently moved to Level 2, is now working as a medical orderly in the dorm where elderly prisoners live. He loves the work, but he misses his old job. People approach him several times a day asking for help with their cases, but he feels it’s too risky to offer even informal assistance. 

Instead, he plans to resume his legal work as soon as he gets out of prison. 

“That’s where my heart is. I’ve got so much of my life invested in the system and so much in the system needs to change — there’s no way I could go out and do something different,” Wilson said. “And there’s so many guys that if I get out, I’m leaving behind who need help, desperately.” 

Because of the disciplinary charge, it’s not clear when Wilson will be freed. His release date is currently set for January 2025 — but before the toy phone incident, he was eligible for a sentence adjustment that could have moved his release up to as early as August of this year. Now that he has a recent misconduct violation, he is no longer eligible for that adjustment.  

The misconduct violation even puts the 2025 release date into question. Before he can be released, Wilson will have to participate in an exit interview hearing before the parole board, which can use his disciplinary record as a reason to defer his freedom for up to 10 years at a time. In 2035, they could tack on another 10 years, based on the same misconduct charge. 

“Essentially,” Wilson said, “they could keep me in prison the rest of my life based on this misconduct report.” 

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