Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘mental health

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.

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.

Miami Jails Provide Inadequate Suicide Prevention, Health Care, Says DOJ

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The Miami Herald reports:

A Justice Department investigation has found numerous medical and mental health problems in Miami-Dade County jails.

The Civil Rights Division investigation says the jail system is indifferent to suicide risks, fails to provide adequate mental illness treatment and disregards medical needs including chronic health problems. The probe also found inadequate fire systems and bad sanitation, as well as risks of violence on inmates by fellow prisoners.

The investigation says these problems violate constitutional rights of prisoners and cause them physical harm, including death. The investigation began in 2008.

Written by sara

August 29, 2011 at 7:34 am

Rikers Island and Irene

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A flurry of concern on Twitter yesterday & today about Bloomberg’s announcement that Rikers Island would not be evacuated as Hurricane Irene headed towards NYC. [Full story after the jump.] Read the rest of this entry »

Seventh Circuit: Wisconsin’s “Inmate Sex Change Prevention Act” Violates the Eighth Amendment

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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 »

Ohio Inmate Denied Medical Care Commits Suicide

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On June 1, Greg Stamper hanged himself at Ohio’s Allen Correctional Institution. Here’s an excerpt from the press release I received from the Ohio Justice and Policy Center:

He was suffering excruciating pain as a result of a nerve condition, and Dr. Myron Shank had refused to give him pain medications multiple times for non-medical reasons.

“We were preparing to file suit when we learned of Mr. Stamper’s death last night,” said David A. Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. Mr. Stamper suffered from acute peripheral neuropathy. As a result of nerve damage, he felt as if the affected parts of his body were on fire. “We are deeply saddened by Mr. Stamper’s death. He was in obvious pain but the institutional doctor refused to treat him,” added Singleton. “We will do what we  need to do to ensure that medical care is provided to prisoners who need it.”

Dr. Myron Shank is a medical doctor employed by the state of Ohio to provide medical services to inmates at Allen Correctional Institution, where Stamper was incarcerated.  Shank removed Stamper from his medication after accusing Stamper of being a drug addict.  Shank refused to put Stamper back on any medicine to control Stamper’s pain.

The Ohio Justice and Policy Center, as class counsel on the Fussell v. Wilkinson settlement, works to guarantee constitutionally adequate medical care in Ohio prisons. OJPC, since the beginning of 2010, has pointed out problems with Dr. Shank refusing to provide care to patients, but the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has continued to employ him.

And a quick programming note: I’ve been pretty intermittent with blogging this spring due to academic commitments, but am gearing up to a more regular blogging schedule. In the interest of getting the information out quickly, I’ll be posting a few press releases and links that have backed up in my inbox, without much commentary or editing. But look for more commentary and editing in weeks to come.

Written by sara

June 22, 2011 at 11:34 am

Yesterday’s New York Solitary Confinement Panel

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The Metro New York Religious Campaign against Torture held a forum yesterday on solitary confinement in the New York state prison system. Using Storify (for my first time!), I made a roundup of journalist Liliana Segura‘s live tweets of the event which is available here. (Unfortunately it seems Storify can’t embed on a WordPress.com blog, but the link should work.) Or if you’re on Twitter yourself, follow @LilianaSegura for lots of excellent, real-time criminal justice updates.

Written by sara

June 22, 2011 at 8:10 am

Rounding Up the Brown v. Plata Commentary

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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 »

Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release Order, 5-4

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For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. — (2011)

Today a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case here, from SCOTUSblog. The initial order was issued in August 2009 by a special three-judge panel of judges, as required for prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I tweeted some highlights from the opinion and dissents here, at Twitter.

The Kennedy opinion is notable, actually, for a relative absence of Kennedy-style flowery rhetoric. Instead, it focuses on the concrete details of suffering documented over the past 20 years of litigation over the California prison system — complete with a photo appendix. It seems like the lawyers at the Prison Law Office (no relation to the Prison Law Blog!) did an excellent job impressing upon the Court the severity of California’s overcrowding crisis. It probably also helps on that score that Kennedy is from California (and Breyer, too, whose brother is a federal judge in California).

I’ll try to read the opinions more closely later in the week and provide more detailed analysis. I’ll also do a roundup later in the week of notable commentary. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of initial news reports:

For an introduction to the California prison system, see my December 2010 post “Truly Appalling.” Here are some of my other earlier posts on this case and related matters:

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