Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘solitary confinement

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.’”

Upcoming Event: January 8 Launch of Anti-Solitary Confinement Campaign in Princeton, NJ

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On Sunday, January 8, Columbia law professor Scott Horton will speak at the launch of the National Religious Campaign against Torture’s initiative against solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. More event info here; register here. Thanks to a reader for sending this along!

Written by sara

January 5, 2012 at 6:49 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

Upcoming Event: “Isolation within U.S. Prisons,” April 5 in San Francisco

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A quick exception to the hiatus to note this event that should be of great interest to my Bay Area readers:

The Center for Constitutional Rights Presents:
Isolation Units Within U.S. Prisons: A Panel Discussion
featuring Dr. Terry Kupers; Keramet Reiter, PhD Candidate U.C. Berkeley, Zahra Billoo, Exec. Director, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR_SF), and CCR Staff Attorney Alexis Agathocleous.

Tuesday April 5, 2011
6:30 p.m.
Audre Lorde Room
The Women’s Building
3543 18th St. #8
San Francisco

More info here. More on Terry Kupers, a leading expert on prison mental health issues, here.

Written by sara

March 8, 2011 at 10:38 am

Ghailani May Spend Life in Florence Supermax

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As I’ve noted before, the War on Crime and the War on Terror have a lot of overlap. So, for students of mass incarceration, I wanted to highlight some particularly relevant snippets from the past few days’ coverage of the Ghailani verdict.

(1) Supermax, solitary confinement, and the politics of terror trials. Guantanamo military prosecutor Morris Davis has published this op-ed defending the verdict as just. Although his argument focuses mainly on procedural issues having to do with the trial itself, he also addresses Ghailani’s likely punishment:

Mr. Ghailani may well serve his sentence at the “supermax” federal prison in Florence, Colo., where others convicted in the embassy bombings are confined. If so, he will spend more time in solitary and enjoy fewer privileges than those under the most restrictive measures at Guantánamo.

Of course, this is the same supermax that proponents of keeping Guantanamo open (most of whom aren’t exactly prison experts) have claimed is incapable of holding terror detainees. At least one prisoner has been held there in solitary confinement for decades, conditions that many psychologists don’t hesitate to call torture.

(2) The devalued currency of the life sentence? Here’s Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution: Read the rest of this entry »

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