Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Archive for the ‘Legislation Watch – Federal’ Category

SCHR Files Lawsuit over Beatings of Handcuffed Prisoners in Georgia Prison

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The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of four men who allege they were beaten by prison guards at Georgia’s Hays State Prison while handcuffed. You can download the full complaint here (PDF). Here, quoted from the complaint, are the plaintiffs’ core allegations:

3. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Nwakanma was punched, stomped on, kicked in the groin and in the face, struck with a flashlight, hit with batons, and beaten until he was unconscious. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Spencer was punched, kicked, and beaten with a baton-like instrument until he vomited and lost consciousness. While Plaintiff Towns was handcuffed, officers kicked him in the head, beat him with a baton on his bare feet, and struck him with a baton in the head until he was unconscious. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Haines was punched, kneed in the face, and kicked in the face. At no time did any Plaintiff offer any resistance or do or fail to do any act that justified the use of force.

4. As a result of these assaults, the Plaintiffs suffered injuries including: a “possible healing left mandibular fracture” (Plaintiff Nwakanma), jaw pain and fractured teeth (Plaintiff Nwakanma), a facial injury requiring oral surgery to remove tooth fragments from the lip (Plaintiff Nwakanma), loss of consciousness (Plaintiffs Nwakanma, Spencer, and Towns), fractured toes (Plaintiffs Nwakanma and Spencer), contusions on the feet impairing the ability to walk unaided (Plaintiff Towns), a baseball-sized hematoma to the head (Plaintiff Spencer), a lacerated mouth (Plaintiff Haines), and possible neurological damage including memory loss, fatigue, and inability to concentrate (Plaintiffs Nwakanma and Towns).

5. Despite these injuries and additional injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs, the officers who participated in these assaults did not file any incident reports indicating that they had used force on any inmates assaulted in the SMU. No Plaintiffs were disciplined for acts occurring in the SMU on August 12, 2010 that would have necessitated the use of force.

The Virginia NAACP’s (Mobile) Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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The Virginia NAACP is sending mobile billboards around downtown Richmond, highlighting America’s high rate of incarceration and the disparity between spending on prisons and schools. The billboards are intended to drum up support for Sen. Jim Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Local TV coverage here (also the source of these screen shots). Another after the jump: Read the rest of this entry »

The Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Problem of Legislative Deadlines

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Poor Eric Holder: It can’t feel good to know that the ACLU, Focus on the Family, the American Conservative Union, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, Grover Norquist, Gary Bauer, Jim Wallis, Prison Fellowship, the Sentencing Project, the NAACP, and the National Immigrant Justice Center—among others—are all “furious” with you, and all for the same reason. Back in June, Obama’s attorney general missed his statutory deadline to promulgate national standards for reducing prison rape. The standards have been proposed by the bipartisan National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, which was convened pursuant to the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, and represent what are already best practices at the facilities that have done the most to curtail prison rape. But they still require Holder’s formal say-so to become binding conditions on federal funding for prisons and jails nationwide.

(Incidentally, for a skeptical take on whether such conditions can actually reduce prison rape, especially in light of widespread public indifference to the problem, see this 2003 Slate article by my criminal law professor, Bob Weisberg. Ever-insightful readers: Do you think things have changed since 2003? Just Detention International thinks so: “The standards release was a turning point in the struggle to end sexual abuse in detention. After decades of institutional denial, downplaying, and flippant repetition of stereotypes, government agencies and corrections officials have finally begun to describe the problem of sexual abuse behind bars as a serious violation of human rights … .”)

Yesterday, the above-listed coalition of strange bedfellows issued an open letter urging Holder to promulgate the standards sooner rather than later. In fairness, it’s not that Holder has completely ignored the issue: rather, he says his office needs more time to assess the implementation costs to prisons and jails (as required by the PREA itself), and to ensure that the regulations promulgated “will endure” (PDF link to Holder’s letter). But many advocates view the delay as indefensible foot-dragging in the face of widespread violations of prisoners’ human rights. In any event, this controversy sparked my interest in the broader question of statutory deadlines of this type. What exactly were the terms of the Attorney General’s deadline, and what, if any, are the consequences for Holder’s failing to meet it? If there are no consequences, what was the point of Congress’s legislating the deadline to begin with? I’ll (sketchily) consider these questions after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »

GAO to Study Price Gouging for Prison Phone Calls

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The ACLU Blog of Rights notes a little-noticed feature of the recently-signed Prison Cell Phone Act:

The bill orders the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the rates that federal prisoners must pay to use ordinary prison phones — and to investigate less expensive alternatives.

The GAO should take a hard look at prison phone rates. The fact is that prisoners who want to stay in touch with their children, parents, and spouses are being gouged. With steep charges to initiate a call, and astronomical per-minute rates, it can cost a prisoner over $30 to make a half-hour call to a loved one. Those who qualify for a prison job often make less than 25 cents per hour — so paying for a brief call to a son or daughter may require more than 100 hours of labor. Read the rest of this entry »

Sorting the Punditry from the Facts on the South Carolina Prison System’s HIV-Segregation Policy

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The DOJ Civil Rights Division has threatened to sue South Carolina over its policy of segregating HIV-positive inmates from the rest of the prison population — an outdated practice in which South Carolina, along with Alabama, is now virtually alone among the states. (Mississippi abolished its HIV-segregation policy a few months ago.) Here’s the response of Jon Ozmint, the director of South Carolina’s prison system:

“This is about left-wing politics controlling the United States Justice Department,” Ozmint said. “This is about whether you want more AIDS or less AIDS.”

Never mind that, as Adam Serwer points out, the ACLU and Human Rights Watch have documented a host of ways in which the segregation of HIV-positive prisoners imposes additional punishment and hardship on top of their judicially-mandated sentence, or that the World Health Organisation has said the practice is “costly, inefficient, and can have negative health consequences for segregated prisoners.” Never mind that 44 of the U.S. prison systems that once segregated HIV-positive inmates, pursuant to policies adopted in the early days of the epidemic, no longer do so. Ozmint’s position has been hailed by at least one pundit as a vanguard policy, “effective and humane,” and Ozmint himself as “refreshing” for describing being incarcerated as “a voluntary activity.” One blog, in a particularly odious formulation, accuses the DOJ of seeking to enshrine “HIV transmission” as a “‘civil right.'” A blogger at the Daily Caller writes, “The Justice Department wants you to get AIDS and die.”

The notion underlying this punditry — that the only way prisons can prevent the transmission of HIV is to cordon off HIV-positive inmates and subject them to additional stigma and isolation — rests on some very ugly assumptions about prisoners, HIV-positive men and women, and the responsibilities of prison guards to protect those in their charge. The notion is also belied by the reality that 48 states and the federal prison system do not segregate HIV-positive inmates. Read the rest of this entry »

The Former Federal Prosecutor’s Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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The result of the new law was startling: Thousands of black men received extraordinarily long sentences, yet at the same time, crack prices fell, indicating that supply was growing. In other words, we achieved mass incarceration while failing to address the underlying problem. We were imprisoning the wrong people. Crack is made out of powder cocaine and usually not “rocked up” until the street dealer handles it. Thus, the least culpable and most easily replaceable parts of the supply chain were the ones locked up.

An equivalent plan would be to try to close down America’s Walmarts by arresting the greeters or stock boys.

Mark Osler, former assistant U.S. attorney and professor at Baylor Law School, on the 100:1 crack-cocaine sentencing disparity. Last week, Congress voted to reduce the disparity to 18:1.

House Approves a Blue-Ribbon Commission on Criminal Justice

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Today the House of Representatives approved legislation to create a national commission to offer reform recommendations on incarceration rates, sentencing policy, crime prevention, substance abuse, reentry, and more. The bill now depends the Senate where it has been introduced by Jim Webb of Virginia. (H/t: the Sentencing Project)

However, as Doug Berman points out, the major problem with criminal justice policy “is not a lack of good ideas, but a lack of leaders willing to help ensure good ideas become law.” This is certainly true not only on the federal level, but also on the state level (California has had one blue-ribbon commission after another making the exact same recommendations for 20 years, and little has changed). Maybe we need an expert commission to study why no one listens to expert commissions.

Written by sara

July 27, 2010 at 8:59 pm

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