Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Web Resources: Joan Petersilia Explains California’s Realignment Policy

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I have lamented many times on this blog that the media has not been entirely accurate in its reporting on California’s “realignment” policy that went into effect in October 2011 (e.g. here and here). Luckily, there is no reason to be misinformed about realignment anymore because expert criminologist Joan Petersilia, who probably knows more about California parole and reentry than anyone and has advised California governors on criminal justice policy, has recently given an interview the Berkeley Law “Criminal Justice Conversations” podcast series. Listen here!

Unfortunately, and as evidenced by the numerous comments that keep streaming in on an earlier post I did on realignment, there seems to be widespread confusion not just in the media, but also on the ground about how realignment is being interpreted and applied in particular counties. Perhaps this is because the state and/or the counties are not doing a good job of communicating the policy to the public, or because the policy itself has some gaps, or simply isn’t working well (or isn’t working as well everywhere), or… etc. Whatever the reason for the confusion, this makes it all the more problematic that, as Petersilia notes in the podcast, the realignment bill did not set aside funds for evaluating its implementation:

You know it’s so disheartening, I can hardly voice it to you, to be honest with you. It goes against every other trend in every other state, and as you said, at the federal government, but it also goes against California’s recent history. Every other major initiative in modern history in California has had a set-aside, that if you’re going to spend all of this money to do things differently, somebody should be accountable and report back to the legislature about how well it worked. Realignment, we’re investing much more then any of these previous initiatives, and yet isn’t it rather odd that we didn’t set aside any money for evaluation?

Does California Need a Truth Commission about Prison Overcrowding?

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Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon thinks so:

[W]e need a commission to investigate for the public record how the state found itself operating prisons that attract words like torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment. This is not Honduras where poverty, spiraling crime, and corruption are the order of the day, or Mexico, but we had prisons that belong in the same frame as recent news stories about the fire the killed hundreds in an overcrowded and chaotic Honduran prison (Guardian coverage here) and a murderous riot by one prison gang against another in Mexico to cover over an escape of elite gang members abetted by guards (coverage in the Guardian here).

Given the severity of the human rights problem in California’s prisons and its duration for more than two decades, retrospective documentation should lead to prospective preventive techniques. The commission could become a California Committee for the Prevention of Torture, or CAL CPT, modeled on the European CPT; a body of legal, medical, human rights, and criminological expert investigators with the authority to inspect any prison, mental hospital, or indeed any place of confinement, in order to warn state government of the potential for degrading conditions to form and how to prevent it.

The full post and more are at Simon’s always thought-provoking Governing through Crime blog.

Written by sara

March 14, 2012 at 8:46 am

“Room for Debate”: Would Ending the War on Drugs Resolve Racial Imbalance in the Prison System?

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The New York Times “Room for Debate” feature this week addresses the racial imbalance in incarceration rates, providing a range of opinions on the question:

The news for young black men is not good: they are disproportionately singled out for discipline in school, they are more likely to be stopped and frisked by New York City police officers, and according to Michelle Alexander in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” nearly one-third of black men are likely to spend time in prison at some point in their lives.

Would pulling back on draconian drug laws or legalizing marijuana be enough to fix this imbalance? What else needs to be done?

Written by sara

March 13, 2012 at 1:22 pm

New York Times: “Prisons Rethink Isolation”

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In light of the recently filed lawsuit against Arizona alleging overuse of solitary confinement, the New York Times has some timely reporting on other states that have decided to reduce their use of isolation as punishment — including Mississippi, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Washington State, and most recently, California:

The efforts represent an about-face to an approach that began three decades ago, when corrections departments — responding to increasing problems with prison gangs, stiffer sentencing policies that led to overcrowding and the “get tough on crime” demands of legislators — began removing ever larger numbers of inmates from the general population. They placed them in special prisons designed to house inmates in long-term isolation or in other types of segregation.

At least 25,000 prisoners — and probably tens of thousands more, criminal justice experts say — are still in solitary confinement in the United States. Some remain there for weeks or months; others for years or even decades. More inmates are held in solitary confinement here than in any other democratic nation, a fact highlighted in a United Nations report last week.

In particular, the article discusses the evidence that prolonged isolation can cause and/or exacerbate mental illness:  Read the rest of this entry »

ACLU, Prison Law Office File Suit against the Arizona Prison System

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Here’s some interesting news on the prison litigation front: The ACLU of Arizona has joined forces with the Berkeley, Calif.-based Prison Law Office – they’re the ones who’ve been litigating California prison conditions cases for years, and brought us last year’s Plata decision at SCOTUS. The two groups have filed a federal lawsuit charging that the Arizona prison system’s use of solitary confinement amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment:

In one particularly tragic case, a prisoner at the state prison complex in Tucson died last year of untreated lung cancer that spread to his liver, lymph nodes and other major organs before prison officials even bothered to send him to a hospital. The prisoner, Ferdinand Dix, filed repeated health needs requests and presented numerous symptoms associated with lung cancer. His liver was infested with tumors and swelled to four times its normal size, pressing on other internal organs and impeding his ability to eat. Prison medical staff responded by telling him to drink energy shakes. He died in February 2011, days after finally being sent to a hospital but only after his abdomen was distended to the size of that of a full-term pregnant woman. A photograph of Dix shortly before his death appears in the lawsuit.

Jackie Thomas, one of the lawsuit’s named plaintiffs who is housed in solitary confinement at the state prison complex in Eyman, has suffered significant deterioration in his physical and mental health as a result of being held in isolation, where he has become suicidal and repeatedly harmed himself in other ways. Prison staff have failed to treat his mental illness, improperly starting and stopping psychotropic medications and repeatedly using ineffective medications that carry severe side effects. Last November, Thomas overdosed on medication but did not receive any medical care.

Given the unique circumstances under which Plata rose to the Supreme Court — California’s prison overcrowding had been endemic for years, and had reached the level of a state of emergency, as declared by Governor Schwarzenegger — I wasn’t sure that the Plata ruling would have much practical effect beyond the Golden State. So it’ll be interesting to watch as the Prison Law Office expands its work to Arizona. As Plata itself demonstrates, the staff there have a track record of translating concerns about prison conditions into legal claims that courts take seriously.

You can read the full complaint here [PDF]. Also involved in the suit is the Arizona Center for Disability Law. And there’s more info at the always excellent Solitary Watch blog.

And for broader historical context on the Arizona prison system, I highly recommend Mona Lynch’s Sunbelt Justice, which I blogged about here.

“Prison walls do not form a barrier … from the protections of the Constitution”

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New York federal judge Shira Scheindlin recently ordered the Bureau of Prisons to transfer Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout out of solitary confinement and into the general population (h/t Solitary Watch).

Given this blog’s focus, I thought I’d excerpt here a portion of Scheindlin’s opinion that provides a useful short primer on how judges evaluate the constitutionality of prison regulations:

The standard for evaluating whether prison regulations impinge on a convicted prisoner’s constitutional rights is set forth in Turner v. Safley. In Turner, the Supreme Court held that to determine whether a prison regulation “burdens fundamental rights,” the reviewing court asks whether the regulation is “‘reasonably related’ to legitimate penological objectives, or whether it represents an ‘exaggerated response’ to those concerns.” Turner outlined a four-factor test for evaluating whether a prison regulation that allegedly violates a constitutional right is reasonably related to a valid correctional objective. The court must consider first whether there is a “valid, rational connection” between the regulation and the legitimate governmental interest used to justify it; second, whether there are alternative means for the prisoner to exercise the right at issue; third, the impact that the desired accommodation will have on guards, other inmates, and prison resources; and fourth, the absence of “ready alternatives.” …

In conducting this rational basis review, deference is accorded to the BOP’s determination. The Supreme Court has noted that courts are “‘ill equipped to deal with the increasingly urgent problems of prison administration and reform’” and that “separation of powers concerns counsel a policy of judicial restraint.” However, as previously noted, “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution” and “‘[w]hen a prison . . . practice offends a fundamental constitutional guarantee, federal courts will discharge their duty to protect constitutional rights.’”

Georgia Prison Guards Settle Lawsuit over Alleged Beatings for $93,000

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Georgia prison guards accused of beating four inmates have agreed to pay $93,000 to settle a federal lawsuit over the allegations. The Chattanooga Times Free-Press reports:

“We think this recognizes that there is a problem with excessive force at Hays State Prison,” said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The Atlanta-based human rights group filed the civil lawsuit in July in federal court in Rome, Ga., on behalf of four inmates. The inmates claim they were beaten when officers responded to a fight in a nearby prison cell in August 2010.


Georgia Department of Corrections officials said they were reviewing questions from the Times Free Press about the suit, but didn’t have a response by Friday afternoon.

This is the second time the human rights group has sued the maximum security prison in Trion, Ga., alleging excessive force. A suit was settled in 1997 on behalf of 14 men who claimed they were beaten without reason.

More on the settlement here, from the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

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