Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

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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.

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.


Rounding Up Commentary on Supreme Court Argument on California Prison Overcrowding, Part II

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California Institution for Men (Chino, Calif.), August 2006. Courtesy California CDCR

As promised, here’s the second round of commentary on Tuesday’s oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Plata. And after the jump, some quick reax from yours truly.

Grits for Breakfast:

I’ve gotta say, as a Texan reading this transcript, the same thought kept recurring: Thank God for the late Judge William Wayne Justice or Texas would be in the same mess or worse. TDCJ has its problems, but Judge Justice insisted the state address its most gaping flaws three decades ago, at a time when the state incarcerated around 30K inmates instead of 155K. Our system has plenty of shortcomings, but it’s not as big a mess as California’s.

California Corrections Crisis:

Note the Justices’ shock at the California recidivism rates. They must truly be disconnected from the world they live in. … My impression, overall, is that many of the Justices already have their minds made up, and that the oral arguments might have done little beyond furnishing them with ammunition for writing the decision.

David Fathi of the ACLU National Prisons Project:

It’s hard to understand why California is so resistant to the common-sense notion that it needs to reduce prison overcrowding. Dozens of jurisdictions throughout the nation have implemented prison population reductions without an increase in crime, and cash-strapped California could save more than half a billion dollars per year by implementing population reduction measures recommended by its own experts.

The Washington Post:

Justice Stephen G. Breyer seemed shocked by photos from the crowded prisons, where bunk beds have taken over gymnasium floors and recreation areas, and medical facilities are located in former closets.

Jacob Sullum:

… if much of the recidivism involves drug possession, as opposed to robbery, rape, or murder, the public safety threat is less dramatic than Alito and Scalia imply. The first step toward alleviating overcrowding in prisons is to free people who don’t belong there—and stop locking them up.

My two cents: Read the rest of this entry »

Highlights from Yesterday’s Supreme Court Oral Argument on California Prison Overcrowding

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So, I’ve now read the oral argument transcript (PDF here)… and actually, I don’t have much analysis to provide. If you’re familiar with the case, the argument was fairly straightforward, and the justices were mostly true to form. But to spare you from slogging through the 90+ page transcript, here’s how the most talkative justices reacted, in a nutshell: Read the rest of this entry »

Tomorrow: SCOTUS to Hear Oral Argument in California Prison Overcrowding Case

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Tomorrow’s the day when the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Schwarzenegger v. Plata, the class-action lawsuit over California’s prison overcrowding crisis. The Wall Street Journal has an overview here, and the Los Angeles Times explains why this case will have ramifications beyond the Golden State:

Lawyers for 18 other states, including Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia, joined in support of California’s appeal, saying they feared a ruling upholding the prison release order could trigger similar moves across the nation. “Real world experience” suggests that releasing a large number of inmates would “inevitably place innocent citizens at much greater risk,” they said. …

Defenders of the judges’ order cite [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger’s own words in 2006 declaring that California faced an overcrowding emergency in its prisons. They also say the state is exaggerating the possible effect of the order. California locks up many prisoners for repeat petty crimes or for technical parole violations, even though they are not considered dangerous or violent.

“California has people in prison who wouldn’t be in prison in any other state,” said former George W. Bush administration Solicitor Gen. Paul D. Clement, who represents one group of state prisoners. His brief cites comments from a former Texas prison director who said he was surprised and disturbed by the overcrowding in California’s prisons.

You can find all the documents you need to get briefed on the case here via SCOTUSblog, and at my earlier posts here (rounding up background info) and here (noting a criminologists’ amicus brief in support of the prisoners). For those of us not in D.C., I’ll try to round up links to oral argument coverage later this week. I’m especially curious to see what new justices Sotomayor and Kagan might say in one of the most significant prisoners’ rights cases to come across the docket since they’ve joined the court.

Radio Roundup, Plus, Mark Your Calendar for California’s Prison Overcrowding Case at SCOTUS

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Here’s some recent radio if you’re in the mood for prison-related news:

And some handy links for those of you following the California prison overcrowding litigation, which has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court:

Forgive the light posting lately — reading up on Plata should keep you occupied for awhile….

Ninth Circuit: California Can’t Get Out of Obligations to Disabled State Prisoners By Housing Them in County Jails

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In the latest ruling in the ongoing Armstrong litigation over the rights of disabled California prisoners and parolees, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled last week that California has the same obligations to those it holds under contract in county jails as it does to those in state prisons. Calling the state’s arguments to the contrary “barely colorable, constituting attacks on manifestly valid regulations,” Judge Reinhardt’s opinion noted that “even in the absence of a regulation explicitly saying so, a State cannot avoid its obligations under federal law by contracting with a third party to perform its functions.” The opinion opens:

More than a decade and a half ago, disabled prisoners and parolees brought this action against the California officials with responsibility over the corrections system and parole proceedings. They sought accommodations to their disabilities that are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Constitution. Defendants denied that they had any obligation to provide such accommodations, forcing plaintiffs to undertake years of litigation. Plaintiffs prevailed repeatedly in the district court and in this court. For most of the last decade, the litigation has been in a remedial phase.

Now, however, defendants are again denying any obligation to accommodate a set of disabled prisoners and parolees held under California’s authority. Defendants house significant numbers of prisoners and parolees in jails operated by California’s fifty-eight counties. Defendants contend that they have no responsibility for ensuring that any disabled prisoners and parolees that they so house receive accommodations. … That argument, and defendants’ other arguments contesting their obligations to their prisoners and parolees housed in county jails, are without merit. Accordingly, we affirm the portion of the district court’s decision that holds that defendants are responsible for providing reasonable accommodations to the disabled prisoners and parolees that they house in county jails.

However, the ruling was not a pure victory for the plaintiffs. The panel also found that there was insufficient evidence to support the district court’s sweeping remedial order, and remanded back to the district court for a fuller evidentiary hearing, though in a paragraph carefully spelling out for the plaintiffs what they need to do next: Read the rest of this entry »

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