Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘fourteenth amendment

Latest in Lawsuit Over Idaho’s “Extraordinarily Violent” Private Prison: CCA Asks Judge to Throw Out Suit on Exhaustion Grounds

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In March of this year, the ACLU filed a class action federal lawsuit alleging a pattern of rampant violence in an Idaho prison operated by the Corrections Corporation of America. The complaint (which can be downloaded here) begins:

ICC is an extraordinarily violent prison. It is known in Idaho as “Gladiator School” for a reason. More violence occurs at ICC than at Idaho’s eight other prisons combined, and the unnecessary carnage and suffering that has resulted is shameful and inexcusable. ICC not only condones prisoner violence, the entrenched culture of ICC promotes, facilitates, and encourages it. Indeed, ICC staff cruelly use prisoner violence as a management tool.

It goes on to describe the “symbiotic relationship [that] exists between certain staff and notoriously violent prisoners,” in which “guards persistently send vulnerable prisoners to live near predatory prisoners, and when these predators commit assaults, they receive mild punishment, and often no punishment.”

This week, CCA lawyers asked the judge to throw out the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not first exhaust their administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act. (The PLRA was passed in 1996, ostensibly to block frivolous prisoner lawsuits. Yet, it has been roundly criticized by prisoners’ rights advocates for mounting insurmountable procedural obstacles to meritorious claims.) Note that earlier this year the ACLU reached a separate settlement with the state of Idaho, which agreed to “aggressively oversee compliance” with any federal court order that results from this litigation. Therefore, CCA is the only remaining defendant.

Regardless of what happens next in this lawsuit, the complaint is well worth reading in full — a disgraceful catalog of fractured ribs, broken noses, knocked-out teeth, wired jaws, and other injuries, all imposed by prisoners upon more vulnerable prisoners with impunity for the perpetrators, and often without even the necessary X-rays and medical care for the victims. The allegations at issue in this case have been shocking even to seasoned prisoners’ rights lawyers:

“In my 39 years of suing prisons and jails, I have never confronted a more disgraceful, revolting and inexcusable case of mass abuse and federal rights violations than this one,” said Stephen Pevar, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU. “The level of unnecessary human suffering is appalling. Prison officials have utterly failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to protect prisoners from being violently harmed and we must seek court intervention.”


Federal Judge: Illinois Supermax Procedures Violate the Fourteenth Amendment

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An Illinois federal judge has ruled that the procedures (or lack thereof) for sending prisoners to the Tamms supermax violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process guarantee. At Tamms, all prisoners are kept in solitary confinement. They spend 23 hours a day in their cells and, as “recreation,” are allowed one hour to walk around alone in a steel cage. U.S. District Court Judge G. Patrick Murphy ruled this week that before inmates can be sent to Tamms, they must be afforded notice of why and a hearing at which they can challenge their transfer. Culminating ten years of litigation brought by Chicago’s Uptown People’s Law Center, Judge Murphy’s ruling emphasizes that it extends only to procedural issues and not to conditions in the prison, which he describes as “clean, excellently administered, and well staffed.” However, a local newspaper’s investigative report last year found that Tamms is often used as a de facto asylum for mentally ill inmates, and that many have been held in solitary confinement there for over 10 years. Psychiatrists suggest that solitary confinement longer than 90 days produces mental breakdown, and some argue it is tantamount to torture.

H/t: Solitary Watch, where you can find more information about this case.

Stories You May Have Missed

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A few notable news stories from the past couple of days:

With 8th suicide, appeals for change in prison system“–Boston Globe. The article begins:

Suicides in Massachusetts state prisons are occurring at a rate more than four times the national average this year, prompting advocates and inmates’ relatives to call for an urgent response from state officials — and spurring the Patrick administration yesterday to hire a suicide prevention specialist.

With the discovery of an eighth inmate found hanging in his cell at Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater yesterday morning, Massachusetts prisons have reached a suicide rate of about 71 per 100,000 inmates so far this year, more than quadruple the average annual national rate of 16 per 100,000 inmates reported by the US Bureau for Justice Statistics.

N.J.’s prison population declines, officials credit less crime, prisoner re-entry programs”–Newark Star-Ledger. Highlights:

With 25,263 inmates in the system as of this month, state prisons still hold more people than they were designed for. And 600 additional inmates will be double-bunked this year to save money. But officials say the overall population shrank because crime was cut, drug courts diverted many people from jail, and programs helped inmates prepare for life on the outside.

“It’s a pretty impressive reduction,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. “We’re not just talking about a tinkering. It comes about through conscious changes in criminal justice policy.”

Groups sue over banned handbook at Virginia prisons“–Washington Post. Download the complaint PDF here. The basics:

Two civil rights groups have sued the Virginia Department of Corrections for banning a handbook from state prisons that explains the court system, methods for legal research and constitutional rights.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild filed suit Wednesday morning in the Western District of Virginia, claiming that the state violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress moves to crack down on prison cellphones“–Salon.

Prison Law Office Demands an End to Race-based Lockdowns in California Prisons

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California State Prison, Solano, August 2006. Courtesy CDCR

According to official prison reports, the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (CDCR) frequently subjects entire racial groups to lockdowns, restricting the access of all prisoners of that racial group to medical care, religious services, family visits, and other resources for an average of more than three months at a time. Yesterday the Prison Law Office, a leading prisoners’ rights non-profit law firm based in Berkeley, Calif., issued a demand letter requesting that CDCR cease this practice. From the Prison Law Office letter to Secretary Matthew Cate (full PDF available here):

African-American prisoners from CSP-Solano wrote to us complaining that the institution continues its practice of locking prisoners down based only on racial classification, despite a decision by a California Superior Court that this practice was unlawful. … Several Northern Hispanic prisoners in one facility at CSP-Sacramento have written to us stating that they have been on “modified program” more or less continuously for the last ten years, and as a result receive fewer privileges, job opportunities and yard time than prisoners of other races. More than twenty African-Americans prisoners housed at Kern Valley State Prison informed us that all African-American prisoners in certain facilities have been locked down frequently as a consequence of fights between individual African-American prisoners, and that even African-American prisoners who are “unaffiliated” must endure extended denials of their rights or privileges with respect to movement, feeding, ducats, visiting, work, shower, medical, library, dayroom, recreation, canteen, packages, phone calls, family visits and religious services. Over a dozen White prisoners in one facility at SATF wrote to us complaining of multiple lengthy lockdowns; some informed us that they had been locked down for over a year. These deprivations of rights are imposed purely on the basis of race and even apply to prisoners who arrived at the prison after the date of the incident which provoked the lockdown.

The Prison Law Office argues that extended racially based lockdowns violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. While prisons are legally permitted to take race into account for safety reasons, any racially discriminatory disciplinary practices must be narrowly tailored to a compelling state interest, under Johnson v. California (2005). The letter concludes: “Even if the prisons were permitted to enforce race-based lockdowns for brief periods of time ‘as a necessary and temporary response to a race riot or other serious threat of race-related violence,’ … such race-based policies cannot remain in effect for weeks and even months as CDCR’s lockdowns too often do.”

* Note: The Prison Law Blog has no affiliation with the Prison Law Office, just boundless admiration for their work.

Written by sara

July 15, 2010 at 7:10 am

Fifth Circuit: Hurricane Trumps a Never-charged Arrestee’s Fourteenth Amendment Claim

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Above: James Terry tells his story

The criminal justice system in New Orleans had long been a rickety, unwieldy, cobbled-together thing. Under the weight of Hurricane Katrina, it totally collapsed. As two New Orleans lawyers recalled a year later: Read the rest of this entry »

States that Don’t Fix Prison-based Gerrymandering May Face Lawsuits

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If you want political power, you should move to City Council Ward 2 in Anamosa, Iowa. There, you’ll only have to share your City Council representative with 57 other constituents! In any of Anamosa’s other three wards, you’d have to share your representative with about 1,370 other constituents. How is this possible? Through the magic of prison-based gerrymandering. Anamosa’s Ward 2 contains a state penitentiary home to about 1,320 inmates, who get factored into the population count for the purpose of City Council districting even though they can’t vote, and are unlikely even to be from Anamosa.

That’s an extreme instance of prison-based gerrymandering, but it’s not as extreme as you might think. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has produced an informative publication, Captive Constituents (PDF download), that outlines the democracy-distorting effects of counting prisoners where they’re incarcerated when drawing state and local election districts. As the example of Anamosa demonstrates, prison-based gerrymandering is not primarily an urban-rural or racial issue. It dilutes the votes of everyone who doesn’t live in a district with a prison — like the rural Iowans who live in Anamosa City Council Wards 1, 3, and 4.

That said, prison-based gerrymandering undeniably has unique effects on urban minority communities. Read the rest of this entry »

Vermont Supreme Court: Prisoners Transferred Out-of-State Have Same Rights as In-State Prisoners

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The Vermont Supreme Court recently ruled in a case that, although legally binding only for Vermont prisoners, may be of broader interest to the many states that transfer inmates to out-of-state facilities because their own prisons are overcrowded. Out-of-state prisons are typically run by private companies that may impose different rules, and may provide prisoners with fewer rights and privileges, than state-run facilities. So, the question that logically arises is whether it’s permissible to treat prisoners differently based solely upon the happenstance of where they’re housed, or whether out-of-state and in-state prisoners must be treated equally. This week’s Vermont Supreme Court ruling suggests the latter, in a ruling with two parts. First, the court holds that out-of-state prisoners are entitled to all the same statutory rights and privileges that in-state prisoners have under Vermont law. Second and potentially farther reaching, even for rights and privileges provided for by prison policy rather than statute, the court suggests that out-of-state prisoners may have a viable equal protection challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Here are the facts: Vermont’s prisons have two rules in place to facilitate inmate communication with family and friends outside. First, when making phone calls, inmates have a statutory right to choose between making collect calls or paying with debit calling cards. Second, although this rule is not statutory, prison policy is to provide all inmates with up to seven free postage stamps per week. It so happens that, through a contract with the private Corrections Corporation of America, Vermont houses about 600 prisoners in a private Kentucky facility where inmates can only make collect calls (which are more expensive and which don’t always work with cell phones) and receive no free stamps. But, the Vermont Supreme Court recently held, all Vermont prisoners, regardless of where they’re incarcerated, have to be afforded their state statutory right to calling cards. As for the postage stamps, the court remanded back to the trial court to flesh out the record on whether there’s a constitutional equal protection violation. That component of the ruling may be of broader interest since it’s arguably a closer question, and rests not on Vermont law but on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: Read the rest of this entry »

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