Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘prisoner grievances

String of Lawsuits Isn’t Scaring States Away from Corrections Corp. of America

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Bob Ortega of the Arizona Republic has been reporting an excellent series on the private prison business. This article is a must-read for summarizing the many connections between Arizona local and state officials and the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. Definitely go read the article, and the “Price of Prisons” series it’s part of, in full. For the purposes of this blog, the highlight of the article is the litany of lawsuits that CCA is facing all over the country. Several stem from the Arizona CCA facilities where Hawaii ships a large number of its prisoners. One Hawaii inmate alleges he was forced to give oral sex to a guard at an Arizona CCA prison; 18 Hawaiian inmates say they were stripped, beaten, and threatened by guards in retaliation for a fight; two other Hawaii inmates were killed by other inmates and their families are alleging that prison security was inadequate. Elsewhere around the country, three female inmates claim they were sexually assaulted at a Kentucky CCA facility; after a series of sexual assault cases nationwide, both Kentucky and Hawaii have removed all their female prisoners from CCA institutions. The most notorious CCA lawsuit, though, is the Idaho “Gladiator School” suit, which alleges 13 instances in which CCA officers opened doors to let violent inmates attack other prisoners and did not intervene during the beatings.

Here, as reported by Ortega, is CCA’s response:

Asked about the suits, CCA’s Owen said, “These are allegations that have not yet been proven in a court of law. These are not established facts, and we respond in court, so I’m not at liberty to respond.”

He said that in June, Hawaii awarded CCA a three-year, $136.5 million contract to continue housing that state’s inmates in Arizona.

“That was a competitive-bid process,” Owen said.

CCA was the only bidder.

“There isn’t a corrections system in the country that’s immune to lawsuits or incidents,” Owen said. “Those don’t necessarily tell the whole story. You have to look at our overall track record. . . . Do incidents occur? Yes. Are we responsive when things happen? Do our partners continue to trust and work with us? Yes.”

The article also notes the troubling lack of security at the Arizona private prisons where many California prisoners are transferred. I’ve heard from prisoners who’ve done time in private prisons that they did not feel safe there. Paid a low hourly wage, private prison guards have little incentive to risk physical harm by intervening in violent situations. In addition, Ortega’s article points out that CCA does not perform full background checks on guards or check whether they have relationships with inmates.

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.

Do Prisoners Have a Right to Hunger Strike?

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With the California prison hunger strike continuing into its second week and now involving thousands of inmates statewide, I thought I’d reprise a post from 2010 about the legal implications of hunger striking. Disclaimer: I haven’t updated my research since then, but am simply re-posting the information in case it’s of interest. Links may be broken or out-of-date.

***

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.

Written by sara

July 12, 2011 at 7:31 am

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

Concerns about (Lack of) Health Care in Texas County Jails

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Today’s New York Times has an article about health care in Texas county jails, leading off with the recent death of Amy Lynn Cowling, 33, a mother of three:*

Ms. Cowling was pulled over on Christmas Eve for speeding and arrested for outstanding warrants on minor charges. She was bipolar and methadone-dependent and took a raft of medications each day. For the five days she was in Gregg County Jail, Ms. Cowling and her family pleaded with officials to give her the medicines that sat in her purse in the jail’s storage room. They never did.

Ms. Cowling’s death is the most recent at Sheriff Maxey Cerliano’s Gregg County Jail in Longview. Since 2005, nine inmates have died there — most were attributed to health conditions like cancer, diabetes and stomach ulcers — far more than at other facilities its size. Bowie County Jail, in East Texas on the Arkansas border, reported five deaths in the same period, as did Brazoria County Jail, south of Houston on the Gulf Coast. In Williamson County in Central Texas near Austin, the jail reported just two deaths.

Interviews with prison experts and people with firsthand experience with the Gregg County lockup and its medical staff, as well as a review of scores of public documents, reveal a troubled local jail where staff turnover is high and inmates routinely complain about conditions. Criminal justice advocates say the situation in Gregg County is not unique; it is representative of systemic problems that plague local jails statewide.

* CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to reflect that Ms. Cowling had three children (not five as I erroneously stated initially).

Written by sara

February 13, 2011 at 8:48 am

Ohio Death Row Inmates Win Concessions, End Hunger Strike

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From the Columbus Dispatch:

A memo dated Friday from Warden David Bobby of the Ohio State Penitentiary at Youngstown outlined six policy changes being made for inmates under the prison’s “administrative maximum security” designation, the most restricted section of Death Row, which houses about 120 prisoners.

Inmates will be allowed “semi-contact” visits with family members, additional recreation time, access to computer-based legal research, phone privileges up to one hour per day and the opportunity to purchase more items from the commissary, including food and clothing. …

Attorneys Staughton and Alice Lynd, who have advocated for the Lucasville inmates, obtained a copy of the memo. They said the state’s capitulation was a surprise.

(h/t: The Crime Report)

Deaf Federal Inmate Files Suit against Bureau of Prisons

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From the Washington Post:

David Bryant, who is serving a 99-year sentence for rape, says he was punished by staff for ignoring instructions that he couldn’t hear and that he was attacked by other inmates when he tried to activate the closed-captioning function on a communal television.

Bryant, 46, cannot understand spoken conversation and communicates through American Sign Language, according to his lawsuit, which was filed Friday.

But since he began serving his current prison term in 2005, he has not had regular access to an interpreter or other vital aids, he says in his suit. That has made it difficult for Bryant to provide accurate information during medical evaluations or to participate in education or treatment programs.

Bryant’s case is being handled by the D.C. Prisoners’ Project.

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