Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘prison health care

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

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.

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.

 

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

Florida Corrections Chief Abruptly Resigns After Disputes with Gov. Rick Scott

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From the day he took office, Gov. Rick Scott has set out to shake up Florida’s prison system — the nation’s third-largest after California and Texas — pushing for privatization of many facilities and bringing in outside talent, Edwin Buss, to run the Department of Corrections. Buss made a national reputation within the corrections field by cutting costs in Indiana’s prisons, and Florida won a hard-fought bidding war with Michigan to hire him away. When he got to Florida, Buss brought in 14 staffers from Indiana and announced a variety of reform proposals, including expanding reentry programs and updating some of the Sunshine State’s more antiquated facilities.

This week, Buss abruptly resigned. The Miami Herald reports:

A soft-spoken U.S. Army veteran, Buss seemed unprepared for the amount of scrutiny legislators, interest groups and media give to Florida’s prisons, which have a legacy of controversy and scandal. He also said he had more autonomy in his previous job as Indiana’s chief of prisons.

Buss, 45, ran afoul of Scott aides on two recent issues.

He did not let the Governor’s Office review a health care privatization contract worth up to $400 million before posting it on the agency website. The contract stipulated that health care vendors must be accredited by the American Correctional Association, whose director, James Gondles, is the husband of Betty Gondles, the consultant Buss hired to prepare the contract.

Under pressure from Scott’s office, Gondles ended her $180,000, 10-month consulting job Wednesday.

Buss also signed a deal with MSNBC to tape six episodes of its Lockup series in Santa Rosa Correctional Institution without letting Scott’s attorneys review it. When the Governor’s Office moved to cancel the contract, the prison system answered with an e-mail showing Scott’s aides knew of the TV deal in April, but by then the contract was signed.

Ironically, Scott’s lawyers approved the MSNBC contract hours before Buss resigned.

The Herald also notes that Buss’s job was recently made more difficult by the challenge of privatizing 30 South Florida prisons in six months, as mandated by the Legislature — a move that may cost the prison system $25 million in compensation to terminated employees for unused leave.

(h/t: The Crime Report)

Written by sara

August 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

Florida Legislature Shuts Down Prison Oversight Agency

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Over Gov. Rick Scott’s veto, the Florida Legislature recently defunded the Correctional Medical Authority, effectively abolishing a state agency created in 1986 in response to prison conditions litigation. The agency went around Florida evaluating whether its public and private prisons were providing constitutionally adequate health care. A spokesperson says the Legislature has “no obligation to restore funding following the veto of the Governor,” so for now the agency is shut down.

Democratic legislators are accusing the Legislature of inviting lawsuits:

“The shuttering of the Correctional Medical Authority was a grave mistake opening Florida and Florida taxpayers to the possibility of widespread financial and legal repercussions,” Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said Friday. …

“By allowing legislative interference to block its funding, the closure of the CMA potentially violates, at a minimum, the spirit of Justice Susan Black’s 1993 court order settling the Costello v. Wainright class action litigation,” Joyner and Pafford said in a joint statement. “Despite our efforts, and the governor’s veto of legislation eliminating the oversight group, the CMA was finished off behind the scenes, and outside the scrutiny of the media, the public, and other key stakeholders.

“To pre-empt any attempts to hold the state of Florida in contempt, or open the door to new litigation as a result of its closure, we urge Governor Scott to explore all possible options, including the issuance of an executive order sustaining the CMA’s operations pending the return of the Legislature.”

(The Florida agency’s annual budget was under $800,000, which might seem like a savings compared to the millions that California has spent on litigation over its prison health care system, but what do I know.)

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 »

Do Prisoners Have a Right to Hunger Strike?

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With the California prison hunger strike continuing into its second week and now involving thousands of inmates statewide, I thought I’d reprise a post from 2010 about the legal implications of hunger striking. Disclaimer: I haven’t updated my research since then, but am simply re-posting the information in case it’s of interest. Links may be broken or out-of-date.

***

If you’re on a hunger strike and someone force-feeds you, that sort of ends your strike, interfering with your First Amendment right to protest, but also with your Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment due process right to refuse medical treatment, as well as various state privacy rights you may have. In some cases, force-feeding could violate the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment. By analogy, across the Atlantic, the European Court of Human Rights has in some cases found force-feeding to violate Europe’s provision against “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (see PDF p. 7).

On the other hand, in the United States, prisons have an Eighth Amendment obligation to keep prisoners alive — or at least, in legalese, not to demonstrate deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm — and may also have various obligations under state law. So, if you’re on a hunger strike and you’re in prison, can the prison staff force-feed you? A Connecticut state judge recently ruled that it’s OK for prison staff to continue force-feeding a prisoner who’s been on a hunger strike for over two years (see also this commentary, criticizing the decision, from the UConn student newspaper, and this AP report). In an amicus brief in support of the prisoner in this case, professors from the Yale, Northeastern, and Western New England law schools had argued that force-feeding could violate not only the Constitution but also international law, and noted that the World Medical Association has condemned force-feeding.

As the WMA’s Malta declaration begins, hunger strikes “are often a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known,” including prisoners wishing to call attention to an individual or collective grievance. There’s been some confusion lately about whether or not there’s a hunger strike on in California’s prisons to protest the Three Strikes Law. Terry Nichols, the (other) Oklahoma City bomber,announced a hunger strike back in February to demand more healthful food. Last year the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was reportedly on a hunger strike in 2009. In Texas, immigration detainees have been hunger striking since January, protesting conditions at the Port Isabel Detention Center. Although the legal issues are technically distinct, force-feeding was also an issue for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Written by sara

July 12, 2011 at 7:31 am

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

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 »

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