Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘aclu

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.

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.

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 »

Fearmongering about Realignment in L.A. County

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To follow up on my post about realignment from yesterday, here’s an article from the Los Angeles Times quoting various supervisors predicting doom and gloom:

“It’s a system that’s meant to fail,” [Supervisor Michael] Antonovich said, “and who is it going to fail? Every neighborhood, every community where these people are going to be running around….It’s a Pandora’s box. It’s the bar scene — a violent bar scene that you saw in ‘Star Wars’ — except they’re all crazy and nuts.”

Antonovich said it is likely that Los Angeles County will run out of jail beds unless it “uses other models of supervisions such as electronic monitoring, work furloughs, weekenders and GPS tracking.”

“It’s irresponsible for us to turn around and dump these [prisoners] into our communities with an ankle bracelet and hope they don’t re-offend,” Antonovich said. Without finding a way to increase prison time, Antonovich said, “I believe we’ll have a spike in crime.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Realignment in California: The Basics, Plus How Counties Are Preparing

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On October 1, California will start diverting low-level felony offenders and parole violators to county jail, rather than state prison, when a new law, known as “realignment,” goes into effect. The law was proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way to bring the California prison system into compliance with the Supreme Court’s order to alleviate overcrowding, and was enacted by the Legislature in March as AB 109. I thought I’d run through a few basics of how the law will work and round up some recent news coverage from around the state. If you’re looking for a more comprehensive resource, the ACLU of Northern California has produced a helpful guide (PDF) to the law and how counties can plan for the changes.

The Mechanics

  • How will AB 109 change California sentencing practices? As of October 1, the law transfers responsibility for punishing non-serious, non-violent, non-sex felony offenses to the county level, where misdemeanors are already handled. So rather than being sent to state prison, these low-level offenders will now be punished with a term in county jail or whatever alternative sanction the county comes up with. (For those familiar with the California Penal Code, generally we’re talking about felonies punishable by the “16 months/2 years/3 years” triad.)  Read the rest of this entry »

Montana Prisoner, Held in Solitary, Sues Over English-Only Letter Policy

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The Montana ACLU has filed suit in federal court on behalf of a 26-year-old prisoner in solitary confinement at Montana State Prison, who alleges that prison officials are barring him from corresponding with his Spanish-speaking family in Guatemala. The AP reports:

Montana Department of Corrections policy allows prison officials to read any correspondence that isn’t a privileged letter from or to a judge, law clerk or the inmate’s attorney. The policy states any non-privileged correspondence will be withheld if it is in a “code or foreign language not understood by the reader.” …

[Plaintiff William] Diaz-Wassmer said he had no trouble receiving his mail during his first two years in prison. Some of those letters were in Spanish, and some in English.

But in May of last year, he received a notice from the prison staff that a letter from a friend was rejected because it was not written in English. Then a Spanish-language letter from his father also was rejected in August.

When Diaz-Wassmer complained, he said the mailroom supervisor told him the prison’s Spanish interpreter had departed, and that Diaz-Wassmer would receive letters again when another was hired.

Diaz-Wassmer is serving a 160-year term for “raping, killing and robbing a Livingston woman and then setting her house on fire to cover up the crimes.” According to the full complaint, which can be downloaded here (PDF), he has been held in solitary confinement since February 2010, spending 22 to 23 hours a day alone in his cell. Between prison restrictions and the high costs of phone calls and visits, letters are his primary way of communicating with his family. He claims that the prison’s effectively “English-only” policy violates his First Amendment rights as well as the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause.

More Plata Commentary: Experts Edition

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From folks who know what they’re talking about:

  • Jonathan Simon, Berkeley professor and criminal-justice scholar: “this is the first decision to move beyond evaluating prison conditions, to place mass incarceration itself on trial.” And on the Scalia dissent: “In Scalia’s universe, a court could order the release of a prisoner from Auschwitz, but not the closing of Auschwitz. This is a coherent vision of the Constitution, but one that renders the Constitution largely irrelevant to modern society.”
  • Doug Berman, Ohio State professor and expert on criminal sentencing: “anyone who does not like the idea of federal courts ordering a state to release prisoners really should be complaining about the fact that [a Republican] Congress in 1996 clearly contemplated and clearly authorized federal courts to enter such an order through the enactment of the PLRA.”
  • More Doug Berman [this is from the comments section to the above link]: “I continue to find it hard to contemplate that a responsible state could/would let things get so bad in their prisons so as to have made such a factual record to justify the need for the federal court involvement. It is truly an embarrassment to CA, and I commen[d] the majority of the Court for recognizing that judges can and must sometimes say enough is enough.”
  • Jeanne Woodford, former San Quentin warden (paraphrased by LA Times columnist Steve Lopez): “Woodford told me California has run an aggressive ‘catch and release program,’ in which we send tens of thousands of parolees back to state prison each year for violations, many of them minor, that could be handled more cheaply and easily at the county level. In her opinion, we incarcerate “many more prisoners than is necessary for the safety of the public.”
  • Inimai Chettiar, policy counsel, ACLU: “Foremost, reducing prison overcrowding will actually lead to less crime and safer neighborhoods. Our extremist sentencing policies have bloated our prisons so severely that not only are they unsafe, unhygienic, and unconstitutional, but also excessively costly and actually a detriment to public safety.”

Also, a programming note: There’s, predictably, been a flood of commentary on Monday’s Supreme Court decision ordering California to bring its prison overcrowding crisis under control. Also predictably, much of that commentary is starting to get repetitive or otherwise non-illuminating, so I won’t attempt to keep a comprehensive archive going (not that such an archive wouldn’t be useful for, well, archival purposes — if I weren’t super-busy this week with other projects, I might take it on, but alas, SCOTUS doesn’t consult my schedule when timing the announcement of its decisions!). But of course, I will certainly keep linking selectively to those more provocative or informative responses, such as those listed above, that I believe to be worth your reading time. Of course, please add further suggestions in comments if you think I’ve missed something!

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