Showing posts with label Cruel and unusual punishment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cruel and unusual punishment. Show all posts

Monday, November 5, 2012

Solitary Confinement in California's Prisons

From Jennifer Allison:
Mother Jones is a publication to which I am proud to subscribe for its commitment to “smart, fearless journalism.”  Its November/December 2012 issue features an important investigative report by Shane Bauer, one of the American hikers who was arrested and imprisoned in Iran in 2009.  In the report, Bauer describes the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) program that assigns prisoners who are deemed to be threat to the general prison population to one of five Security Housing Units (SHU) in the state. 

SHUs in California, according to Bauer, “hold nearly 4,000 people in long-term isolation,”  many of whom are subject to an “indeterminate sentence.”  This can mean lengthy stays in solitary confinement, with little real hope of being released.  In the Pelican Bay prison’s SHU, for example, “[m]ore than half of the 1,126 prisoners…have been in isolation for at least five years.”

The length and indeterminate nature of these sentences are not the most appaling aspect of the system Bauer exposes in his report.  What is most shocking is how some of these prisoners wind up in solitary confinement in the first place.  If the state collects three pieces of evidence that can be used to “validate” a prisoner as a member of a gang, this is sufficient to send the prisoner to a SHU, where he can be placed in isolation indefinitely. 

Many of the types of evidence that officials can use to “validate” a prisoner as a gang member are flimsy at best.  These include, among other things, possession of “black literature,” drawings depicting Aztec symbols, or writings in the Nahuatl language of central Mexico.  Sometimes these materials are collected and used against prisoners to whom prison guards and officials have taken a dislike, merely as a way of removing those prisoners from the population.

According to the report, there are only two ways for a prisoner to be released from a SHU.  Either a prisoner can be “declared an ‘inactive’ gang member or associate,” or the prisoner can “debrief,” which means to tell authorities everything he knows about the gang with which he has been associated.  The first option is rarely successful, and the second carries the high risk of the prisoner getting himself killed once he returns to the general population.  The other alternative?  Wait it out in solitary confinement, which, as Bauer points out, can lead to extreme mental and physical illness and distress in those who are subjected to it for any length of time.

I have done my best to not let my personal feelings about Shane Bauer cloud my judgment of his report.  I had little sympathy for him and his two friends at the time of their arrest.  Frankly, they should have known better than to select, of all places, an area near the border of Iran, a country known for its hostility and volatile treatment toward the United States and Americans, as the location for their hiking trip.  My opinion on that matter has not changed that much over time, and I was not comfortable with his repeated references to himself as a “former hostage.”  Not that I doubt that his suffering was real and acute.  But it was his choice to place himself in a position where there was a real risk of being arrested and arbitrarily held by a regime that has been shown to hold international human rights standards in little regard. 

That said, I do believe that the time Bauer spent in solitary confinement in an Iranian prison more than qualifies him to research and write a scathing report on the damaging solitary confinement assignment program in the California prison system.  Frankly, this program sounds to me as if it raises serious constitutional concerns, especially regarding the First and Eighth Amendments.  I admit, however, that I am not familiar enough with the case law in this area to know for sure.  In any event, this is an important report, and those who believe in fair and just treatment for prisoners would be well-served to read it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Juvenile offenders and life without parole

Available on SSRN: "The Paradox of Graham v. Florida and the Juvenile Justice System" by federal district court law clerk (C.D. Cal.) Aaron Sussman, forthcoming in the Vermont Law Review. The author analyzes a series of Supreme Court decisions on sentences for juveniles that foreclose any possibility of parole, including Graham v. Florida (2010) as well as the recent Miller v. Alabama/Jackson v. Hobbs decision.  He finds "a sharp disjuncture emerges between the Supreme Court’s language and the realities of the criminal justice system, a disjuncture that, in the context of Graham and its progeny, helps preserve the perception of legitimacy but may inhibit even small steps toward improving the conditions and rehabilitative potential of the juvenile justice system."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mandatory Life Sentences for Juveniles

Today the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision in the combined cases of Miller v. Alabama (10-9646) and Jackson v. Hobbs (10-9647). The majority opinion, written by Justice Kagen and joined by Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, stated that "mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on 'cruel and unusual punishments.'"  See reports from Jurist, The New York Times, the Chicago TribuneCNN JusticeHuman Rights Watch, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

“Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences”

On June 19, 2012, Professor Michael B. Mushlin submitted the following testimony in the Hearing before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights (Chairman: The Honorable Dick Durbin, Ranking Member: The Honorable Lindsey Graham):

Thank you for holding this important hearing and inviting testimony. My name is Michael B. Mushlin. I am a Professor of Law at Pace Law School in White Plains, New York. I am the author of Rights of Prisoners,1 a four volume treatise, and a member of the American Bar Association’s Task Force on the Legal Status of Prisoners. I am also a co-chair of the American Bar Association, Subcommittee on Implementation of the ABA Resolution on Prison Oversight,2 and have served as chair of the Committee on Correction of the New York City Bar Association, the Correctional Association of New York and the Osborne Association, an organization that provides training and support programs for people in jail and prison or who are being diverted from imprisonment. Currently, I am a vice chair of the Correctional Association of New York, a 168 year old organization endowed by New York law with the authority to visit New York State Prisons with the responsibility to report on their condition to the New York state legislature. With colleagues, including Prof. Michele Deitch of the University of Texas, I participated in the organization of two national conferences on prison reform, the first Prison ReformRevisited: The Unfinished Agenda held at Pace Law School and the second, OpeningUp a Closed World: What Constitutes Effective Prison Oversight held at the University of Texas. Both conferences drew together professionals from all segments of the criminal justice and corrections fields to discuss improvement to the operation and oversight of the American prison system. For seven years, I was staff counsel and then the Project Director of the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society. I also served as staff counsel with Harlem Assertion of Rights Inc., and was the Associate Director of the Children’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. For the 2012/13 academic year, I will be a Visiting Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School.

I first confronted conditions in solitary confinement units over thirty years ago when I served as trial counsel in a federal civil rights case involving Unit 14, the solitary confinement unit at Clinton prison in upstate New York close to the Canadian border. What I saw there was deeply disturbing. Inmates were locked for 23 hours each day into small windowless cages for months and years on end. No programs or activities were provided to them. Without access to any meaningful activity, they were separated from one another spending almost all of their time entirely by themselves. During that one precious hour per day when a Unit 14 inmate could leave his cell there was only one place to go: a small space directly behind his cell called a “tiger cage.” The tiger cage was a small empty space with a barren floor surrounded on all sides by high concrete walls which were not covered by a roof. An inmate could walk only a few steps in one direction before turning. If he looked up he could glimpse a bit of the sky but nothing else of the outside world.3

Working on that case I witnessed firsthand the awful consequences of subjecting human beings to solitary confinement. I will never forget looking into the eyes of those inmates struggling to maintain a foothold on reality and sanity. Afterwards, when visiting other solitary confinement units, no matter where, I see that same pained, desperate stare. I have seen it so often, and in so many different places, that I have come to recognize it instantly as the gaze of a tortured person.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Welcome to the readers of Prison Law Blog

This blog will be taking up where the well-respected Prison Law Blog left off and will endeavor to add as much to the conversation.  My goal is to provide information on developments in prisoners' rights law, as well as a forum for discussing the constitutional rights protecting, or failing to protect, the incarcerated.  Those in America’s prisons and jails have the right to be free from "cruel and unusual punishment" and, as Justice Thurgood Marshal stated:
The [Eighth] Amendment must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ruiz v. Brown

The amended complaint in the federal class action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constituional Rights and several other advocate and legal organizations on behalf of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison who have spent more than 10 years in solitary confinement, some more than 25 years, is available on the CCR website.  Other CCR prisoners' rights cases have included: Al-Jundi v. Estate of Oswald, filed in 1974 by survivors of the Attica uprising, Byrd v. Goord, challenging New York DOCS collect-call only telephone policy, and NLG and CCR v. Johnson, challenging the Virigina DOC decision placing Jailhouse Lawyer's Handbook on a "disapproved publications list."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard

David Stoelting, principal author of Supermax Confinement in U.S. Prisons, will moderate a program on solitary confinement on May 31, 2012, 7 to 9 p.m., at St. Francis College, Founders Hall, 182 Remsen Street, Brooklyn, N.Y.  Noting that "Rikers Island had increased it use of solitary confinement by 44% over the past two years, despite decreases in inmate population," the program will address the reasons why New York should put an end to this practice.

Speakers include: Pace Law School Professor Michael B. Mushlin, Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights, and Sarah Kerr, staff attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society.

The 20-minute film, Solitary Confinement: Torture in Your Backyard, will also be screened. It was created by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture "to give a voice to the thousands of prisoners held in solitary confinement cells across the country."

For more information, email