Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

A Tale of Two Lawsuits

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The other day my Google Reader brought me news of two new lawsuits filed this week against, respectively, the federal and California state prison systems. In the first, the Center for Constitutional Rights — which has coordinated much of the legal work on behalf of Guantanamo detainees — is challenging the federal Bureau of Prisons policy of moving certain inmates into isolated cells known as “Communications Management Units,” without any advance notice or meaningful review of their transfer. These inmates face very stringent limits on their communications with their family and with the outside world, and CCR alleges that the policy is an effort to create “a stateside Guantanamo” for prisoners with unpopular political beliefs. (Two-thirds of the inmates in these special prison units are Muslim.) In the second, Crime Victims United — the California organization well-known for receiving much of its funding from the state prison guards’ union, and for its staunch support of “tough-on-crime” legislation — is suing to block enforcement of a new law that would have the effect of releasing a relatively small number of the lowest-risk offenders. Says a San Diego citizen whose son was murdered, “The victims are being ignored.”

Though filed in the same week, these two lawsuits seem on the surface to be as different as could be. The CCR is suing to get plaintiffs out of restrictive prison conditions; CVU is suing to keep prisoners inside. Moreover, the two groups are literally as far apart on the political spectrum as could be. The Center for Constitutional Rights is frequently attacked by the right as “a Marxist organization” dedicated to “defending America’s enemies”; Crime Victims United has been labeled a mere “front group” of the California prison guards’ union (which did provide 95% of its start-up funding), exploited to give the union a more sympathetic public face. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit outright here that I think the attacks on the CCR are despicable and unfounded, while I see little reason to dispute at least a weak form of the above characterization of the CVU. While I would not go so far as to belittle the CVU as pawns, since from everything I have seen of them the group’s leaders are heartfelt in their convictions, it’s undeniable that they are closely tied to the CCPOA.

And yet, the more I thought about these two lawsuits, the more I came to think that they represent two sides of the same coin: the fact that America’s prison system has become a leviathan that obeys its own logic, almost completely cut off from democratic accountability and utterly unresponsive to public views. After all, in both of these suits, the real issue is that a given prison system has adopted a policy that at least some citizens feel contradicts American values, established law, sound policy, and the democratic will. Yet, they feel they have no recourse but to challenge the policy after the fact in the courts. But, of course, the courts are notoriously reluctant to second-guess criminal justice policy, deferring wherever possible to legislative judgments and prison administrators’ expertise. It’s a societal catch-22.

Although, today, these two positions are usually defended by groups on opposite ends of the political-legal spectrum, there is no inherent contradiction between the conviction that defendants and prisoners are subject to horrific injustices on a day-to-day basis, and the conviction that victims of violent crime are all too often shortchanged by our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, we have not only an out-of-control prison system but a political environment in which it is difficult if not impossible to discuss ways of addressing both sets of concerns. Despite the caricature that Americans have a kneejerk preference for punitive, “tough-on-crime” policies, I believe that what most Americans really want is to feel safe in their homes and their communities, to have a government that is responsive to people’s needs (i.e., not bankrupt and not captured by special interests), and to feel that they have a voice in government decisions. Even though crime rates have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, too many Americans don’t feel safe and don’t feel that they have a voice. This paradox, I think, is inseparable from the rise of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex.

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