Monthly Archives: May 2016

Why It’s Nearly Impossible For Prisoners To Sue Prisons

In the next few weeks the Supreme Court will decide a major case on the fate of the 1990’s Prison Litigation Reform Act (P.L.R.A.). Prisoners’ advocates have argued for years that the P.L.R.A. makes it nearly impossible for inmates to get a fair hearing in court, and that it has crippled the federal judiciary’s ability to act as a watchdog over prison conditions. The Act is being challenged by Shaidon Blake, a gang leader convicted of second-degree murder, who was assaulted by two guards in a Baltimore city jail. From the New Yorker article on the case:

The guards, James Madigan and Michael Ross, had been ordered to move Blake to solitary after a supervising officer complained that he was starting trouble—“commandeering” the television and using the phone out of turn. According to court documents, Madigan and Ross walked Blake from his cell to a nearby corridor, where they pressed him up against a concrete wall. Ross held Blake, whose hands were cuffed, while Madigan punched him in the face five times.

In 2009, Blake filed a lawsuit in federal court against the two guards, plus two supervisors and the state government, seeking damages for his injuries. The assault worsened a preëxisting head injury, his lawyers said, and left Blake suffering from migraines and permanent nerve damage in his face. Madigan, the guard who threw the punches, was found liable and was ordered to pay Blake fifty thousand dollars, but a judge eventually dismissed the case against the supervisors and the government.

The issue in Blake’s case against the second guard, Ross, now before the Supreme Court, is not the role Ross may have played in the assault (Ross has argued that he attempted to deëscalate the situation) but, rather, whether the case should be dismissed because Blake did not file the proper paperwork.

Blake’s Supreme Court case, which is set to be decided in the next few weeks, shows the P.L.R.A.’s effect: at issue is not the role Ross may have played in the assault (Ross has argued that he attempted to deëscalate the situation) but, rather, whether the case should be dismissed because Blake did not file the proper paperwork. As passed, the law requires prisoners who believe their rights have been violated to first submit a grievance form to their prison’s administration, and, if that grievance is rejected, to appeal the decision within their state’s corrections system as high as the process allows. Only after those steps have been taken can prisoners file suit in an actual court. This type of provision is known as an “exhaustion requirement.”

Functioning properly, a grievance system can provide corrections officials with early warnings of staff misconduct, deficient medical care, and unsanitary or dangerous conditions. But in practice, critics say, these systems create a tangle of administrative procedures that discourage or disqualify inmates from filing lawsuits. Before 1996, courts applied an exhaustion requirement only if a state’s grievance process met certain high standards of fairness outlined by the Justice Department. The P.L.R.A. eliminated those standards. There are currently no regulations governing prison grievance processes, and, in the two decades since the law’s passage, many prisons’ procedures have become so onerous and convoluted—“Kafkaesque,” in the words of one federal judge—that inmates whose rights have been violated are watching their cases slip through the cracks.

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Vera Institute Report on Criminal Justice Reform

The Vera Institute  of Justice has published a new report on criminal justice reform efforts at the state level. The report catalogues a number of strategies from states across the political spectrum: In New Jersey, voters and lawmakers gave judges more power to release low-risk defendants who can’t afford bail, letting them go home rather than sit in jail while they await trial. In Idaho, a new law created 24-hour crisis centers to help keep people with mental health issues from being locked up unnecessarily. Georgia and Louisiana established courts for military veterans accused of crimes. Hawaii funded programs to help reunify children with parents who are behind bars.
The report also summarizes recent criminal justice research, which indicates that:
> longer sentences have no more than a marginal effect in reducing recidivism and shorter sentence lengths do not have a significant negative impact on public safety;
> many people can be safely and effectively supervised in the community rather than in custody at lower cost;
> post-punishment penalties and restrictions (the collateral consequences of criminal conviction) hinder people upon release from prison or discharge from community supervision in addressing known risk factors for reoffending—such as mental illness, substance-abuse problems, lack of vocational skills, education, and housing—with now
well-understood impacts on their families and communities.

A Judge’s Critique of Collateral Consequences

As the New York Times reported at length this week, Judge Block, of the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, sentenced a young woman convicted of a drug felony to probation, saying that the collateral consequences of the conviction were punishment enough – no prison necessary. The Judge observed that such consequences served “no useful function other than to further punish criminal defendants after they have completed their court-imposed sentences.” He noted that there were nearly 50,000 federal and state statutes and regulations that imposed penalties on felons. Those penalties — denial of government benefits, ineligibility for public housing, suspension of student loans, revocation or suspension of driver’s licenses — can have devastating effects, he wrote, adding that they may be “particularly disruptive to an ex-convict’s efforts at rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”

The Challenges of Re-entry

As discussed in a recent story in The Crime Report:

There is “reasonable concern about the obstacles and challenges that confront people who have been incarcerated for years, isolated from a changing world, separated from families and home communities by hundreds of miles, having to overcome barriers imposed by a criminal conviction, in an environment short on needed services…”

This is not a small problem – Federal prisons alone release 50,000 people a year. In response to reentry issues the DOJ and Attorney General Loretta Lynch have announced an overhaul of federal prison practices, issuing a “Roadmap to Reentry” declaring that individualized reentry plans should be prepared for federal inmates as soon as they enter prison.

Mental Health Month

Criminal Justice reform means mental health service reform. Estimates of the number of incarcerated individuals with mental health problems vary by definition and by method, but the conservative estimate of the DOJ’s  Bureau of Justice Statistics is that more than half of all prison and jail inmates have a mental health problem, including  56% of State prisoners, 45% of Federal prisoners, and 64% of local jail inmates. In many if not most cases this represents a failure to provide adequate mental health services rather than a connection between mental health problems and criminal behavior. In part to address these issues, May is Mental Health Month.