Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘california

Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail May Close (And a Footnote in Praise of Technocrats)

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Earlier this week Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca announced plans to shut down L.A.’s notorious Men’s Central Jail. This is big news: L.A. County’s jails comprise not just the largest and most violent jail system in the nation, but also, by default, one of the nation’s largest mental health care providers. Over the years I have been writing this blog, I’ve often noted stories of violence and other problems in the L.A. County jails. So, planning to shutter the largest of those troubled facilities — Men’s Central, which houses as many as 5,000 inmates on any given day — is a noteworthy reform. (Of course, questions remain about whether/how the plans will be implemented.)

How, you might ask, can L.A. County do this — especially at a time when California’s realignment policy is shifting more responsibility to the county jails? The ACLU of Southern California, which has been suing L.A. County over its dismal jail conditions for years, explains:

[A] report [PDF here], by nationally-renowned corrections expert James Austin and based on data provided by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, finds that Men’s Central Jail can be shuttered by safely releasing 3,000 low-risk, non-violent pre-trial and sentenced inmates into community-based supervision and education programs that will curb recidivism, and by increasing the capacity of the county-wide jail system by 2,000 beds through a repurposing of existing facilities.

James Austin may be familiar to readers of this blog, because he also provided the data crunching needed for Mississippi to shut down its horrific solitary confinement wing, “Unit 32“. I noted previously that he was also working with New Orleans to downsize its jails, though it appears his recommendations there have not been implemented. His firm has also consulted for a number of states and the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. Consultants, advisers, policy analysts don’t have the flashiest jobs, and unlike celebrity activists and high-profile lawyers rarely become household names, but work like Austin’s is what will make it possible for local and state governments to dismantle mass incarceration — and, ideally, to do so in a way that avoids the Pyrrhic victories that Bob Weisberg and Joan Petersilia have warned of.

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

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.

A Problematic Article on Prison Reform in n+1 Magazine

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n+1 magazine has this article arguing for prison abolition, by Christopher Glazek. For all the statistics it recites, it doesn’t explicitly grapple with any of the leading experts on the topics of crime, punishment, and mass incarceration or discuss their research; nor does it (on my reading) accurately describe the recent state-level reforms with which I’m most familiar (those in California), which leads me to wonder whether its other sections are accurate. To take the section in which Glazek discusses California, point-by-point:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 26, 2012 at 11:25 pm

Federal Judge Will Lift Receivership Over California Prisons

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After six years in federal receivership, the California prison system is ready to be returned to state management, says federal judge Thelton Henderson. The San Francisco Chronicle explains:

When U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco appointed a receiver in February 2006 to oversee inmates’ medical treatment, he said the lack of adequate care was killing an average of one prisoner a week, and state officials had shown themselves incapable of complying with constitutional standards, including the ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

On Tuesday, Henderson said the latest report from receiver Clark Kelso showed “significant progress,” to the point that many of the goals have been accomplished. “The end of the receivership,” the judge said, “appears to be in sight.”

It’s not over yet, though. Henderson told lawyers for state prison officials and the inmates to meet with Kelso and try to agree on when the state will be ready to run its own system, under continued monitoring — by Kelso or someone else — to prevent backsliding. Their report is due by April 30.

In the meantime, the prison population continues to shrink, a development closely linked to two decades of health care litigation.

Donald Spector, who heads the Prison Law Office, which has been litigating the California prison cases for 20+ years, told the Los Angeles Times that he’s worried the state may backslide after the receivership is lifted, given the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis. California Healthline has a helpful backgrounder on the issue.

 

Los Angeles County Sued Over Violence, Abuse in Jails

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“Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top commanders condoned a longstanding, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the county jails,” said the ACLU yesterday, announcing a federal class-action lawsuit. The named plaintiffs, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, claim that they were severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies while they were awaiting trial in the jail.

The ACLU of Southern California has long been litigating L.A. jail conditions and has served as court-appointed monitor of the jail — the nation’s largest — since 1985. The new lawsuit, however, includes new first-hand eyewitness accounts from chaplains and other observers of violence. The ACLU has put together a timeline of alleged incidents of abuse; you can also read the full complaint here.

The L.A. Times reports:

“Like members of street gangs, these deputies sport tattoos to signal their gang membership,” the ACLU alleges. “They beat up inmates to gain prestige among their peers, and ‘earn their ink’ by breaking inmates’ bones.”

In an interview with The Times, a recently retired jails commander also said that deputies had formed cliques inside Men’s Central Jail and that some guards earned respect from veteran members of those cliques by using excessive force.

Supreme Court Blocks Federal Lawsuit against Private Prison Employees

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Earlier this week the Supreme Court threw out a federal prisoner’s federal lawsuit against employees of the GEO Group, saying the inmate should have pursued his claims in state court. (Which he’s now missed the deadline to do.) As Jess Bravin explains:

Under high-court precedents, inmates in federal institutions can file federal lawsuits against prison employees for mistreatment that violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishments.”

By an 8-1 vote, however, the court refused to extend that right to inmates held in private prisons operated under contract to the U.S. government. In an opinion by Justice Stephen Breyer, the court observed that in contrast to federal employees, whom prisoners generally can’t sue in state court, employees of the private company enjoy no such immunity.

The AP has these details about the suit:

[Inmate Richard Lee] Pollard wanted to sue for his treatment after he fell and fractured both of his elbows at the privately run Taft Correctional Institution in Taft, Calif.

Pollard said GEO officials put him in a metal restraint that caused him pain, and refused to provide him with a splint, making his injuries worse and causing permanent impairment. He sued in federal court for money, claiming GEO officials had violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the sole dissenter, writing, “Were Pollard incarcerated in a federal- or state-operated facility, she would have a federal remedy for the Eighth Amendment violation he alleges. I would not deny the same character of relief to Pollard, a prisoner placed by federal contact in a privately operated prison.”

The case is Minneci v. Pollard; you can read the full opinion as well as lots of commentary over at SCOTUSblog.

Upcoming Event: January 27-28 Symposium on Women and Incarceration at UCLA

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The UCLA Law Review’s upcoming symposium may be of interest to readers in Southern California, and it’s free and open to the public — you just need to pre-register here. Here’s the full description:

Overpoliced and Underprotected: Women, Race, and Criminalization

Recently, mass incarceration has been theorized as a system of racialized social control. This frame, however, often relies on long-standing gender reductionism that posits the primary subject of punishment and criminalization as male. At the same time, the unprecedented growth of female incarceration has spawned a host of gender-sensitive interventions, yet the discourses that are gender-sensitive often marginalize if not entirely erase the distinctive racial dimensions of the punitive turn in public policy. This Symposium will interrogate how criminalization is mediated through various intersections of race, gender and class and will shed light on the dimensions of racialized criminalization that are gendered differently.

Moreover, this symposium will investigate the parallel and reinforcing nature of institutions that prepare certain populations for incarceration and function to exclude them upon their release. In examining various logics of punishment, the discussion will not be limited to formal boundaries of the criminal justice system, nor the processes that govern adjudications of innocence or guilt. Instead, this symposium will interrogate the processes of control that parallel and intersect with the prison system such as the public health, welfare, foster care and education systems. Examining these overlaps reveals the way that systems which are seen as policing race have gender dimensions and those which are seen as embodying gender norms police them along racial lines. Lastly, we will examine the ways in which formalistic examinations of the criminal justice systems and constitutional limitations on state action can obscure these race and gender dynamics. 

The full lineup of panels and panelists is at this link.

Written by sara

January 10, 2012 at 8:55 am

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