Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘eighth amendment

SCHR Files Lawsuit over Beatings of Handcuffed Prisoners in Georgia Prison

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The Southern Center for Human Rights has filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of four men who allege they were beaten by prison guards at Georgia’s Hays State Prison while handcuffed. You can download the full complaint here (PDF). Here, quoted from the complaint, are the plaintiffs’ core allegations:

3. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Nwakanma was punched, stomped on, kicked in the groin and in the face, struck with a flashlight, hit with batons, and beaten until he was unconscious. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Spencer was punched, kicked, and beaten with a baton-like instrument until he vomited and lost consciousness. While Plaintiff Towns was handcuffed, officers kicked him in the head, beat him with a baton on his bare feet, and struck him with a baton in the head until he was unconscious. While handcuffed, Plaintiff Haines was punched, kneed in the face, and kicked in the face. At no time did any Plaintiff offer any resistance or do or fail to do any act that justified the use of force.

4. As a result of these assaults, the Plaintiffs suffered injuries including: a “possible healing left mandibular fracture” (Plaintiff Nwakanma), jaw pain and fractured teeth (Plaintiff Nwakanma), a facial injury requiring oral surgery to remove tooth fragments from the lip (Plaintiff Nwakanma), loss of consciousness (Plaintiffs Nwakanma, Spencer, and Towns), fractured toes (Plaintiffs Nwakanma and Spencer), contusions on the feet impairing the ability to walk unaided (Plaintiff Towns), a baseball-sized hematoma to the head (Plaintiff Spencer), a lacerated mouth (Plaintiff Haines), and possible neurological damage including memory loss, fatigue, and inability to concentrate (Plaintiffs Nwakanma and Towns).

5. Despite these injuries and additional injuries suffered by the Plaintiffs, the officers who participated in these assaults did not file any incident reports indicating that they had used force on any inmates assaulted in the SMU. No Plaintiffs were disciplined for acts occurring in the SMU on August 12, 2010 that would have necessitated the use of force.

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!

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 »

Supreme Court Upholds California Prisoner Release Order, 5-4

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For years the medical and mental health care provided by California’s prisons has fallen short of minimum constitutional requirements and has failed to meet prisoners’ basic health needs. Needless suffering and death have been the well documented result. Over the whole course of years during which this litigation has been pending, no other remedies have been found to be sufficient. Efforts to remedy the violation have been frustrated by severe overcrowding in California’s prison system. Short term gains in the provision of care have been eroded by the long-term effects of severe and pervasive overcrowding.

Brown v. Plata, 563 U.S. — (2011)

Today a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court affirmed a federal court order requiring California to reduce its prison population to 137.5% of design capacity. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority, joined by justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Scalia wrote a dissent joined by Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito wrote a dissent joined by Chief Justice Roberts.

You can download the full SCOTUS decision as well as other documents from the case here, from SCOTUSblog. The initial order was issued in August 2009 by a special three-judge panel of judges, as required for prisoner release orders by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I tweeted some highlights from the opinion and dissents here, at Twitter.

The Kennedy opinion is notable, actually, for a relative absence of Kennedy-style flowery rhetoric. Instead, it focuses on the concrete details of suffering documented over the past 20 years of litigation over the California prison system — complete with a photo appendix. It seems like the lawyers at the Prison Law Office (no relation to the Prison Law Blog!) did an excellent job impressing upon the Court the severity of California’s overcrowding crisis. It probably also helps on that score that Kennedy is from California (and Breyer, too, whose brother is a federal judge in California).

I’ll try to read the opinions more closely later in the week and provide more detailed analysis. I’ll also do a roundup later in the week of notable commentary. In the meantime, here’s a roundup of initial news reports:

For an introduction to the California prison system, see my December 2010 post “Truly Appalling.” Here are some of my other earlier posts on this case and related matters:

A Life Sentence for 1.2 Grams of Crack?

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In his book Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America’s Golden State, Joe Domanick tells the story of Tommy Lee Fryman:

In 1998, Fryman was arrested in San Jose for being under the influence of cocaine. Tommy Lee was strip-searched when the cops found 1.2 grams of crack cocaine “hidden between his buttocks.” He pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine base, and because of nine prior felony convictions “alleged as strikes,” was given a three strikes sentence of twenty-five-to-life.

Here’s the kicker: If Tommy Lee Fryman had been arrested just a few years later, he would not have served a day in prison. In November 2000 California voters passed Prop. 36, which mandates treatment, not hard time, for simple-possession drug charges. At that time, California was incarcerating 36,000 men and women a year for simple possession — the highest number in the nation both in absolute and per capita terms. Of that number, about 580 people, like Fryman, had been sentenced to 25-to-life sentences for simple drug possession under the 1994 Three Strikes Law. (The close proximity in time of Three Strikes and Prop. 36 is, itself, a fairly good metric of the incoherence of California criminal justice policy.)

Fryman’s federal habeas case was argued at the Ninth Circuit this week by two students from Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project. Fryman’s argument is, first, that the sentence is cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment, and second, that the sentence violates the Equal Protection Clause, given that voters approved Prop. 36 while Fryman’s state appeals were still pending (and thus, i.e., that Fryman is being treated differently before the law than similarly situated offenders). You can listen to the oral argument at this link (the case name is Fryman v. Duncan).

Although I don’t normally cover sentencing law, this case and others like it help to explain today’s prison conditions. There is a generation or more of Californians — those who were of crime-committing-age between 1980 and 2000 — who racked up criminal records and prison stints on the basis of draconian drug sentencing practices that California voters have since rejected. A lot of those men and women are still in the system or still being hurt by the system, whether because prison ruined their life, or because they got into further trouble once labeled a criminal, or because they got out of prison and finding few resources to help them went back to using drugs, or whatever reason. Or because like Fryman, they are literally still in prison because they were caught up both in the drug war and the Three Strikes Law. And the same story could be told about New York and the Rockefeller drug laws, and many other states, and certainly about the federal system. Sentencing reform for the future is an important first step, but the roots of mass incarceration can’t be pulled out so neatly — ultimately some form of retrospective justice will also be needed, I think. Imagine what additional challenges your life might have included if you’d been sent to prison 10 or 20 years ago, and now consider that for millions of Americans, that happened.

Seventh Circuit: “Our prison system is not the gulag”

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The procedural history: Indiana inmate files lawsuit challenging his work assignment; district court dismisses his suit for failure to state a claim; Seventh Circuit panel of Posner, Wood, and Williams reverses and remands for further proceedings. Judge Posner’s opinion is worth quoting at length:

Smith was assigned to uproot tree stumps. Workers on the stump crew were forced, the complaint alleges (and since the complaint was dismissed on its face, we take its allegations to be true, though of course without vouching for their truth), to work in “freezing cold” with axes, pickaxes, and shovels and without having received any safety instruction or protective gear—not even gloves. Stump-crew workers are alleged to be at risk of getting hit by the blades of their tools because the heads of the tools slip from their handles as the prisoners hack away without proper training. Smith developed blisters from handling these heavy tools in the cold without gloves. …

The district court dismissed the Eighth Amendment claim, insofar as it complained about failure to provide gloves for outdoor work in cold weather, on the ground that Smith’s blisters were nothing more than “the usual discomforts of winter” rather than deprivations of the “minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities,” and brushed off his fear of dangerous working conditions …

Although no one much likes to work out of doors during the winter, the normal discomfort that such work involves does not make the work cruel and unusual punishment. But that is provided that the worker is properly clothed. Smith does not specify the temperature in which he was working without gloves and got blisters on his hands but it was during the winter of 2008-2009, and the average temperature at the location of the Branchville Correctional Facility in Indiana where he was imprisoned was only 29.6 degrees Fahrenheit in January (it was 35.2 in December, 38.8 in February, and 50.2 in March); on January 16 it plunged to -7.

“The Eighth Amendment ‘forbids knowingly compelling an inmate to perform labor that is beyond the inmate’s strength, dangerous to his or her life or health, or unduly painful.’ “ Ambrose v. Young, 474 F.3d 1070, 1075 (8th Cir.2007). It forbids forcing prisoners to “perform physical labor which is beyond their strength, endangers their lives or health, or causes undue pain.” Berry v. Bunnell, 39 F.3d 1056, 1057 (9th Cir.1994) (per curiam). Failure to provide a prisoner required to work out of doors with minimal protective clothing, obviously including gloves, can therefore violate the Eighth Amendment, as countless cases have found. [cites numerous cases]

The “usual discomforts of winter” to which the district judge referred do not include handling heavy tools with gloveless hands in subzero weather. Our prison system is not the gulag. Smith’s blisters could have been caused by his handling the stump removal tools without gloves, or could even have been precursors to or consequences of frostbite—the record does not say. But the allegations of the complaint are sufficient to preclude dismissal for failure to state a claim.

Full docket info: Smith v. Peters, et al., No. 10-1013, 7th Cir., January 19, 2011; opinion PDF here.

Written by sara

February 14, 2011 at 10:39 am

A Different Take on Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment

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As I noted in my post this morning, courts have generally interpreted the Thirteenth Amendment’s punishments-for-crimes exception to bar legal challenges to prison labor requirements. But I should have noted there is an alternative view which holds that this interpretation is a misreading. Law professor Raja Raghunath of the University of Denver has reminded me of his 2009 article in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, which argues that the Thirteenth Amendment has been historically misconstrued by the federal courts, and that many forms of modern prison labor would fall under the constitutional ban of involuntary servitude, properly construed.

Prof. Raghunath’s article can be downloaded here or at SSRN. From the abstract:

Although in some states inmates may still be sentenced to hard labor, in most systems today they labor under a more general requirement that, if they are able-bodied, they must work. Reading the word ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment in a manner consistent with the way that same word is used in the Eighth Amendment, and is understood in the rest of the Constitution, reveals that only those inmates who are forced to work because they have been so sentenced – which is not the vast majority of inmates compelled to work in the present day – should be exempted from the general ban on involuntary servitude. …

This article argues that the reason courts have broadened of the meaning of ‘punishment’ in the Thirteenth Amendment, while simultaneously narrowing it in the Eighth Amendment, is because these directly contradictory acts of constitutional interpretation both serve the same end of judicial deference to the actions of prison officials, which has resulted in the general abdication by courts of their constitutional obligations to oversee those officials’ actions. This article also theorizes about the potential outcomes of interpreting the Thirteenth Amendment properly with respect to prison labor, and suggests that the resulting recognition of the punitive purposes that have always driven our prison labor programs may actually lead to an improvement in the overall well-being of prisoners, and perhaps of society as a whole.

Written by sara

December 16, 2010 at 2:36 pm

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