Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

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.’”

Georgia Prison Guards Settle Lawsuit over Alleged Beatings for $93,000

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Georgia prison guards accused of beating four inmates have agreed to pay $93,000 to settle a federal lawsuit over the allegations. The Chattanooga Times Free-Press reports:

“We think this recognizes that there is a problem with excessive force at Hays State Prison,” said Atteeyah Hollie, an attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The Atlanta-based human rights group filed the civil lawsuit in July in federal court in Rome, Ga., on behalf of four inmates. The inmates claim they were beaten when officers responded to a fight in a nearby prison cell in August 2010.


Georgia Department of Corrections officials said they were reviewing questions from the Times Free Press about the suit, but didn’t have a response by Friday afternoon.

This is the second time the human rights group has sued the maximum security prison in Trion, Ga., alleging excessive force. A suit was settled in 1997 on behalf of 14 men who claimed they were beaten without reason.

More on the settlement here, from the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

Friday Roundup, Gopnik Edition

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In lieu of a proper Friday Roundup, I’ll refer you to this week’s widely-discussed article in the New Yorker: Adam Gopnik’s “The Caging of America.” The article asks, “Why do we lock up so many people?” and works its way to an answer by way of reviewing several recent tours-de-force on crime and punishment in America: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough, Bill Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, and Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.

A few quick thoughts (forgive the bullet-point form):

  • Overall this is a successful article: timely, thought-provoking, humane; it considers both the crime and punishment sides of the equation; most importantly it’s a handy one-stop read summarizing a lot of the recent writing and research on the topic of mass incarceration (destined for college classes around the nation, and a great link to share with your friends/family who don’t know much about the issue). Hopefully it’ll find a wide readership. A well-timed New Yorker article can sometimes change the national conversation on an issue (see, e.g., the influence of Atul Gawande on framing Obama’s health care agenda, or how that Jane Mayer article made the Koch brothers a household name).
  • That said, nothing Gopnik says is news to anyone who already follows these issues. America currently incarcerates more people, as a percentage of its population, than does any peer nation and than did America at any previous point in its history. Even states we might think of as very liberal — Massachusetts, Connecticut, etc. — have incarceration rates that would be very high by European standards. I broke down the data state-by-state here.
  • On a first quick read (I’ll have to return to the article when I have more time), I think that Gopnik, like his sources, too easily assigns a lot of causal significance to 19th-c. developments (the penitentiary movement, slavery, etc.) to explain a phenomenon — the boom in prison construction and the massive explosion in the incarcerated population — that really only began in the 1970s, and began rather suddenly. What’s the mechanism of continuity? But, this is perhaps an academic historical debate; I don’t have strong reservations with Gopnik’s account overall, and for better or worse, it’s certainly an effective summary of the literature. (Gopnik has a real talent for synthetic criticism, as evidenced earlier this month by his essay on the Spanish Inquisition.)
  • Along those lines, I’m increasingly not sure I’m comfortable with how much of the rhetoric and commentary on mass incarceration uses statistical comparisons to slavery and the Gulag. I think there are a lot of methodological issues there (for one thing, there’s a constant slippage back-and-forth in these discussions between per capita and absolute numbers that I don’t think is fully theorized — this has also been a major critique of Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence) and I think the scale of American incarceration is enough of an evident problem on its own without needing to bring in historical analogies that are less than analytically rigorous. Moreover, the comparison to slavery actually undermines what ends up being Gopnik’s ultimate point. With slavery, we really did need to dismantle the entire social-political-economic system to end it. Gopnik’s conclusion in this piece is that, with mass incarceration, it’s precisely the opposite: we don’t need a revolution; “the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities” would be enough. (On the other hand, maybe the provocative historical comparisons are needed to force people to pay attention. Would be curious to hear what readers think. I guess this is a subset of a bigger set of questions about how useful historical analogies ever are, and for what purposes. For instance, James Forman makes some useful critiques of Michelle Alexander’s Jim Crow frame in a recent NYU Law Review article, and in a shorter piece at the Boston Review.)
  • All that said, certainly I think you should read the article, pass it along to friends and family, and discuss it in the comments here or elsewhere. I’m glad these issues are finally on the radar of the intelligentsia.

Written by sara

January 27, 2012 at 7:25 am

Posted in Friday Roundups

A Problematic Article on Prison Reform in n+1 Magazine

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n+1 magazine has this article arguing for prison abolition, by Christopher Glazek. For all the statistics it recites, it doesn’t explicitly grapple with any of the leading experts on the topics of crime, punishment, and mass incarceration or discuss their research; nor does it (on my reading) accurately describe the recent state-level reforms with which I’m most familiar (those in California), which leads me to wonder whether its other sections are accurate. To take the section in which Glazek discusses California, point-by-point:  Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 26, 2012 at 11:25 pm

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.

 

Los Angeles County Sued Over Violence, Abuse in Jails

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“Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his top commanders condoned a longstanding, widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the county jails,” said the ACLU yesterday, announcing a federal class-action lawsuit. The named plaintiffs, Alex Rosas and Jonathan Goodwin, claim that they were severely beaten by sheriff’s deputies while they were awaiting trial in the jail.

The ACLU of Southern California has long been litigating L.A. jail conditions and has served as court-appointed monitor of the jail — the nation’s largest — since 1985. The new lawsuit, however, includes new first-hand eyewitness accounts from chaplains and other observers of violence. The ACLU has put together a timeline of alleged incidents of abuse; you can also read the full complaint here.

The L.A. Times reports:

“Like members of street gangs, these deputies sport tattoos to signal their gang membership,” the ACLU alleges. “They beat up inmates to gain prestige among their peers, and ‘earn their ink’ by breaking inmates’ bones.”

In an interview with The Times, a recently retired jails commander also said that deputies had formed cliques inside Men’s Central Jail and that some guards earned respect from veteran members of those cliques by using excessive force.

New Book: “From Black Power to Prison Power”

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Here’s a new book likely of interest to readers of this blog (h/t: Al Brophy at the Faculty Lounge): From Black Power to Prison Power, by Donald F. Tibbs (Macmillan, 2012):

This book uses the landmark case Jones v. North Carolina Prisoners’ Labor Union to examine the strategies of prison inmates using race and radicalism to inspire the formation of an inmate labor union. It thus rekindles the debate over the triumphs and troubles associated with the use of Black Power as a platform for influencing legal policy and effecting change for inmates. While the ideology of the prison rights movement was complex, it rested on the underlying principle that the right to organize, and engage in political dissidence, was not only a First Amendment right guaranteed to free blacks, but one that should be explicitly guaranteed to captive blacks—a point too often overlooked in previous analyses. Ultimately, this seminal case study not only illuminates the history of Black Power but that of the broader prisoners’ rights movement as well.

Prisoners’ rights to unionize last came up on this blog during the Georgia prison strike (?) of 2010. You can read the full Jones opinion here.

Supreme Court Blocks Federal Lawsuit against Private Prison Employees

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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.

The AP has these details about the suit:

[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.

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