Posts Tagged ‘eighth amendment’
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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.
Since 2003, the Legal Aid Society has been pursuing a class-action suit on behalf of “present and future” female inmates in the New York state prison system, alleging a pattern of “sexual abuse—including forcible rape—of women prisoners by state correctional officers,” facilitated by inadequate staff screening, training, oversight, and grievance procedures. Claiming violations of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments, the plaintiffs are asking a federal district court to issue an injunction requiring the New York DOC to implement more effective policies and procedures for preventing sexual abuse.
At the trial court level, the case had been dismissed by district judge Kevin Duffy, in part because some of the plaintiffs are no longer in prison, so their requests for injunctive relief are moot. Now the Second Circuit has reversed that ruling, reinstating the lawsuit as to those plaintiffs and sending it back to the district court for further proceedings to determine if the case can proceed as a class action. (Full opinion PDF here — note, the case has had a very complicated procedural history and this is mainly a procedural ruling, so the opinion may be hard to follow; I’ll translate some of the legalese after the jump, if you’re curious).
The AP reports on the stance of the New York Department of Corrections:
In April, Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer testified the department has adopted a series of directives and orientation materials for prisoners and notices to staff and inmates emphasizing zero tolerance sexual abuse. He noted the department’s inspector general has one of the few prison sex crimes units in the nation investigating allegations of misconduct by staff, as well as abuse by inmates on one another.
“The reality, however, is that while we do not willingly tolerate sexual abuse of our offenders, we may not be able to ever fully eradicate the occurrence,” he said. “Our approach is to take proactive preventive measures, immediately respond to all allegations and seek criminal penalties where appropriate believing that such efforts have a deterrent effect within the system.”
Surely, had the Wisconsin legislature passed a law that DOC inmates with cancer must be treated only with therapy and pain killers, this court would have no trouble concluding that the law was unconstitutional. Refusing to provide effective treatment for a serious medical condition serves no valid penological purpose and amounts to torture. – Fields v. Smith, 7th Cir., Aug. 5, 2011
The Seventh Circuit recently struck down a 2005 Wisconsin law, the “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act,” that barred prison doctors from prescribing hormone treatment or sex reassignment surgery for transgender prisoners. The Seventh Circuit panel of Gottschall (a district judge sitting by designation), Rovner, and Wood held that the statute violates the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment, affirming a ruling by Wisconsin federal district judge Charles Clevert. (While Clevert’s ruling also found a Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause violation, the Seventh Circuit did not reach that issue, striking the law solely on Eighth Amendment grounds.)
Writing for the panel, Judge Gottschall (PDF here) summarizes the expert testimony offered at trial about the “feelings of dysphoria” caused by Gender Identity Disorder (GID): Read the rest of this entry »
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.
From folks who know what they’re talking about:
- Jonathan Simon, Berkeley professor and criminal-justice scholar: “this is the first decision to move beyond evaluating prison conditions, to place mass incarceration itself on trial.” And on the Scalia dissent: “In Scalia’s universe, a court could order the release of a prisoner from Auschwitz, but not the closing of Auschwitz. This is a coherent vision of the Constitution, but one that renders the Constitution largely irrelevant to modern society.”
- Doug Berman, Ohio State professor and expert on criminal sentencing: “anyone who does not like the idea of federal courts ordering a state to release prisoners really should be complaining about the fact that [a Republican] Congress in 1996 clearly contemplated and clearly authorized federal courts to enter such an order through the enactment of the PLRA.”
- More Doug Berman [this is from the comments section to the above link]: “I continue to find it hard to contemplate that a responsible state could/would let things get so bad in their prisons so as to have made such a factual record to justify the need for the federal court involvement. It is truly an embarrassment to CA, and I commen[d] the majority of the Court for recognizing that judges can and must sometimes say enough is enough.”
- Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin warden (paraphrased by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez): “Woodford told me California has run an aggressive ‘catch and release program,’ in which we send tens of thousands of parolees back to state prison each year for violations, many of them minor, that could be handled more cheaply and easily at the county level. In her opinion, we incarcerate “many more prisoners than is necessary for the safety of the public.”
- Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel, ACLU: “Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety.”
Also, a programming note: There’s, predictably, been a flood of commentary on Monday’s Supreme Court decision ordering California to bring its prison overcrowding crisis under control. Also predictably, much of that commentary is starting to get repetitive or otherwise non-illuminating, so I won’t attempt to keep a comprehensive archive going (not that such an archive wouldn’t be useful for, well, archival purposes — if I weren’t super-busy this week with other projects, I might take it on, but alas, SCOTUS doesn’t consult my schedule when timing the announcement of its decisions!). But of course, I will certainly keep linking selectively to those more provocative or informative responses, such as those listed above, that I believe to be worth your reading time. Of course, please add further suggestions in comments if you think I’ve missed something!
Here’s a (non-comprehensive) roundup of coverage and commentary on yesterday’s Brown v. Plata decision. Please also visit the California Correctional Crisis blog — they’re the experts and they call the opinion “a mixed blessing”: given his framing of the issue, “Justice Kennedy sets the stage for the state to avoid early releases by recurring to damaging, malignant techniques, which will only increase mass incarceration in the long run.” Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law & Policy blog also has several helpful posts on the decision, and will surely have more to come.
- Adam Liptak’s solid summary of the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the New York Times. Also in the NYT, analysis of how the decision might factor into California’s ongoing fiscal woes.
- Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog on how the majority and dissenting opinions seem to have different visions of what the majority opinion actually entails.
- The Los Angeles Times explains how Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan, which would transfer low-level inmates down to county jail, could achieve the required population reduction without “releasing” anyone from custody. More on that plan from the SF Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko. (But, the plan would cost an increase in taxes, and if there’s one thing California voters love, it’s refusing to pay higher taxes even while demanding super-expensive criminal-justice policies.)
- Press release from the Prison Law Office, the Berkeley-based prisoners’ rights law firm that’s been litigating this case for 20 years. A handy nutshell summary plus links to a wealth of documents from throughout the litigation.
- Forbes blogger Ben Kerschberg has a well-done round-up of quotes and facts on the situation in California’s prisons.
- The always-interesting Dahlia Lithwick on the Court’s inclusion of photographs in the opinion.
- Tim Lynch of Cato provides some context on Justice Kennedy’s interest in prison reform.
- Helpful backgrounders from KQED’s Bay Area news blog and KALW’s Informant blog.
Commentary from California pols:
- Gov. Jerry Brown: “As we work to carry out the court’s ruling, I will take all steps necessary to protect public safety.”
- CDCR Secretary Matt Cate on reforms already under way to shift the lowest-level offenders out of state prison down to county jail: “What we do best is focus on high-risk, high-level offenders. That’s always been the traditional role of prisons, you know. The governor was really surprised to learn that California had 47,000 offenders that went to prison last year that served 90 days or less.”
- State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley: “Our prison system is an expensive failure. It is a threat to both the public safety and the financial well-being of California.”
- An AP roundup of additional quotes from California politicians.
California editorial boards:
- SF Chronicle: “The Supreme Court’s ruling to end California’s shameful and dangerous prison overcrowding demands an answer from Sacramento, not more rhetoric and legal dodges.”
- San Jose Mercury News: “The governor and Legislature need to stop whining and begin making changes that meet civilized standards and will make Californians safer.”
- Los Angeles Times: “the truth is that experts have been suggesting responsible ways to ease prison overcrowding for years. One way is to create an independent panel to revise the state’s haphazard sentencing guidelines, which all too often result in excessive terms that worsen overcrowding.”
And lastly, my take: Read the rest of this entry »