Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘fourteenth amendment

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 »

Connecticut Judge OK’s Force-Feeding of Prisoner on Hunger Strike

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If you’re on a hunger strike and someone force-feeds you, that sort of ends your strike, interfering with your First Amendment right to protest, but also with your Fifth/Fourteenth Amendment due process right to refuse medical treatment, as well as various state privacy rights you may have. In some cases, force-feeding could violate the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment. By analogy, across the Atlantic, the European Court of Human Rights has in some cases found force-feeding to violate Europe’s provision against “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” (see PDF p. 7).

On the other hand, in the United States, prisons have an Eighth Amendment obligation to keep prisoners alive — or at least, in legalese, not to demonstrate deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of serious harm — and may also have various obligations under state law. So, if you’re on a hunger strike and you’re in prison, can the prison staff force-feed you? A Connecticut state judge recently ruled that it’s OK for prison staff to continue force-feeding a prisoner who’s been on a hunger strike for over two years (see also this commentary, criticizing the decision, from the UConn student newspaper, and this AP report). In an amicus brief in support of the prisoner in this case, professors from the Yale, Northeastern, and Western New England law schools had argued that force-feeding could violate not only the Constitution but also international law, and noted that the World Medical Association has condemned force-feeding.

As the WMA’s Malta declaration begins, hunger strikes “are often a form of protest by people who lack other ways of making their demands known,” including prisoners wishing to call attention to an individual or collective grievance. There’s been some confusion lately about whether or not there’s a hunger strike on in California’s prisons to protest the Three Strikes Law. Terry Nichols, the (other) Oklahoma City bomber, announced a hunger strike back in February to demand more healthful food. Last year the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid was reportedly on a hunger strike in 2009. In Texas, immigration detainees have been hunger striking since January, protesting conditions at the Port Isabel Detention Center. Although the legal issues are technically distinct, force-feeding was also an issue for Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Ninth Circuit Reinstates Lawsuit over 2005 Suicide in California Jail

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In 2005, 29-year-old Robert Clouthier hanged himself with a bed sheet while in custody at a Contra Costa County, Calif. jail, where he’d been booked on battery and vandalism charges arising out of a violent outburst against his father. Last week, the Ninth Circuit issued its ruling in a lawsuit filed by Clouthier’s parents against Contra Costa County and against three jail officials, who, the Clouthiers allege, failed to prevent their son’s suicide, despite knowing about his grave mental health problems, in violation of his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The court reinstated the Clouthiers’ suit as to one of the defendants — the mental health specialist who took Clouthier off suicide watch — partially overturning the district court’s grant of summary judgment.

The day that Clouthier arrived at the jail, as part of a routine intake mental health screening, he

told [county mental health specialist Sharlene] Hanaway that he was suicidal, and that he wanted to be “unconscious for the rest of his life.” Hanaway described Clouthier as “despondent, hopeless, suicidal” and “one of the most suicidal inmates she had ever seen.” Hanaway’s notes state that Clouthier had made numerous past suicide attempts, including one incident two months earlier that required hospitalization after he cut his wrists. [Her] notes reflect that Clouthier had taken medication for several years, but that he had ceased doing so two and a half years ago.

(Clouthier v. County of Contra Costa, No. 07-16703, 9th Cir., Jan. 14, 2010, p. 1123)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sara

January 28, 2010 at 10:36 am

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