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Prisoners Rights

Civil Rights Advocates Take Action to Protect All Prisoners at East Mississippi Correctional Facility

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Fri, 09/26/2014 - 9:41am

Groups Seek Class Action Status for Federal Lawsuit over Human Rights Violations

September 26, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

MERIDIAN, Miss. – Civil rights advocates filed a motion in federal court today to protect all prisoners at the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF) from conditions that corrections and medical experts have described as "dangerous," "dysfunctional," and tantamount to "torture."

The motion asks the court to certify a 2013 lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections as a class action. If approved, the lawsuit would benefit all prisoners at the facility, including the majority who have serious mental health needs. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Law Office of Elizabeth Alexander, and Covington & Burling LLP filed the motion in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, Northern Division.

The motion includes hundreds of pages of expert reports that give a glimpse into a dank and filthy prison that left the experts aghast. They document a facility where cell doors don't lock, prison officials frequently resort to unnecessary force, and prisoners struggle to receive the medical care they need – even paying copays for each sick call request that far too often don't result in the prisoner seeing a nurse or doctor.

"After touring the facility, experts confirmed what plaintiffs, as well as the Mississippi Department of Corrections, have long known: conditions at the East Mississippi Correctional Facility are inhumane by any standard," said Ajmel Quereshi, staff counsel for the ACLU's National Prison Project. "Security guards facilitate prisoner-on-prisoner assaults; cells covered in blood are left uncleaned; prisoners with cancer are denied treatment; and those who attempt suicide are ignored by mental health staff."

The prison is operated by Utah-based Management and Training Corporation, with health services provided by Health Assurance, LLC, based in Jackson. Both companies operate under contract with the Mississippi Department of Corrections system.

"The hellish conditions that have been allowed to fester inside this for-profit prison should shock anyone with any sense of decency," said Jody Owens, managing attorney for the SPLC's Mississippi office. "It's sickening that private companies earn profits through the misery and suffering of mentally ill prisoners who can't get their most fundamental human needs met. The people of Mississippi should be outraged."

The expert reports detail many disturbing instances of prisoner treatment.

  • A mental health counselor concluded a prisoner with a rope around his neck wasn't in distress even after the prisoner said he didn't have a reason to live, complained of heart pain and attempted to cut himself with a dull object. The prisoner later died, apparently from a heart condition prison staff rarely took seriously. Remarkably, his medical records noted his vital signs were stable – 10 hours after his death.
  • A 31-year-old patient with a brain tumor who did not receive a timely CT scan or referral to a neurosurgeon.
  • A 28-year-old prisoner lost vision in his right eye when he didn't receive his glaucoma medication. He was already blind in his left eye.

Prisoner medical records are another concern. One expert compared medication records to "Swiss cheese" because there are so many holes. Entries documenting rounds by personnel frequently appear to be nothing more than a summary stating the prisoner is fine that has been repeatedly copied and pasted. Prisoners also appear to live weeks to months in dark segregation cells with broken or missing light bulbs.

"Taken as a whole, the conditions in solitary confinement at EMCF are the worst I have witnessed in my 40 years as a forensic psychiatrist investigating jail and prison conditions," Dr. Terry A. Kupers wrote in a report examining the prison's mental health care system. "These conditions can accurately be described as torture according to international human rights agreements and standards. They press the outer bounds of what most humans can psychologically tolerate."

For the expert reports and other information about Dockery v. Epps, see

For information about the ACLU's National Prison Project, see

For information about the Southern Poverty Law Center, see

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU Sues Scott County on Behalf of Mississippians Jailed Indefinitely Without Lawyer or Indictment

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Wed, 09/24/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Mississippi, and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a class action suit late yesterday against the Scott County (Mississippi) sheriff, district attorney, and judges after learning that the Scott County Detention Center has held people for as long as a year without appointing counsel and without indicting them. The county’s practices violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments’ rights to counsel, to a speedy trial, and to a fair bail hearing.

"This is indefinite detention, pure and simple. Scott County jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight. For those waiting for indictment, the county has created its own Constitution-free zone," said Brandon Buskey, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. "These prisoners’ cases are frozen, their lives outside the jail are disintegrating, and they haven’t even been charged with a crime. The county has tossed these people into a legal black hole."

One plaintiff in the ACLU’s suit, Joshua Bassett, has been in the Scott County Detention Center since January 16 of this year; he has been denied an attorney and a grand jury hearing. Another, Octavious Burks, has been in the jail since November 18, 2013. Neither Mr. Bassett nor Mr. Burks could afford their bail. Mr. Burks has been through this ordeal twice before. Since 2009, he has been jailed in Scott County on three separate charges without indictment or counsel.

The ACLU has evidence that many others have been trapped in the Scott County Detention Center for months at a time because they couldn’t pay bail and, like Mr. Bassett and Mr. Burks, were denied counsel and a grand jury hearing.

"We’re seeking to make Scott County’s justice system function for all its residents," said Buskey. "The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges. But Scott County, while extreme, isn’t alone. In too many places across the United States, poor people languish in jail for weeks and months, crowding the system because they can’t make bail and are waiting for an indictment or a public defender. Reform can’t come soon enough."

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU Comment on ICE Opening of Additional Detention Facility in Texas

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Tue, 09/23/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

WASHINGTON - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced today that it will open and operate a new family detention center in Dilley, Texas in response to the influx of families apprehended along the southwest border.

The facility is expected to open in early November, making it the fourth facility the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is using to detain families that cross the Southwest border.

"We're extremely disappointed in the administration's decision to dramatically expand the warehousing of vulnerable mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America," said Laura W. Murphy, Director of ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office. "In just a few short months, the family detention system will have increased from just 90 beds to almost 4,000. History shows us that imprisoning families limits access to due process, harms the physical and mental health of parents and children, and undermines the family structure by stripping parents of their authority. Rather than incarcerating thousands of mothers and children, DHS should be investing in effective, humane, and far less costly alternatives to detention."

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU Demands Government Provide Chelsea Manning Necessary Medical Care

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Tue, 09/23/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

WASHINGTON – Today, Chelsea Manning filed a lawsuit in federal court in the District of Columbia against Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of the Army officials for their failure to provide necessary medical treatment for her gender dysphoria, a condition with which she was originally diagnosed by Army doctors more than four years ago.

The complaint is accompanied by a motion for preliminary injunction demanding that Ms. Manning be provided hormone therapy, permission to follow female grooming standards, and access to treatment by a medical provider qualified to treat her condition. Ms. Manning is currently serving a thirty-five year prison sentence at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Ft. Leavenworth Kansas, and though the military recognizes that she has gender dysphoria requiring treatment, critical care has been withheld without any medical basis.

"The government continues to deny Ms. Manning’s access to necessary medical treatment for gender dysphoria, without which she will continue to suffer severe psychological harms," said Chase Strangio, attorney in the ACLU Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender project and co-counsel on Ms. Manning’s case. "Such clear disregard of well-established medical protocols constitutes cruel and unusual punishment."

Ms. Manning is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, the ACLU of Kansas and civilian defense counsel David E. Coombs. Last month, Ms. Manning’s legal team sent a letter to the DOD and Army officials demanding that she receive treatment for gender dysphoria in accordance with medical standards of care, including hormone therapy and permission to follow female grooming standards.  Her treatment needs have continued to be unmet and her distress has escalated.

"I am proud to be standing with the ACLU behind Chelsea on this very important issue." said David E. Coombs, "It is my hope that through this action, Chelsea will receive the medical care that she needs without having to suffer any further anguish."

Gender dysphoria is a serious medical condition that requires hormone therapy and changes to gender expression, like growing hair, to live consistently with one’s gender identity as part of accepted standards of care.

Without necessary treatment, gender dysphoria can cause severe psychological distress, anxiety, and suicidality. For this reason, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and the American Psychological Association have issued policy statements that support providing treatment to prisoners diagnosed with the condition in accordance with established standards of care, as the Federal Bureau of Prisons and many state corrections agencies are already doing. 

Categories: Prisoners Rights

All Colorado Jails Now Reject Federal Immigration Detainers

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Thu, 09/18/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

DENVER, Colo. – All of Colorado’s county jails have now confirmed to the ACLU of Colorado that they no longer honor detainer requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

ICE routinely issues detainer requests, or "ICE holds," to local jails. They ask sheriffs to continue holding a person in jail for up to five days past the time when the person would otherwise be released, so that ICE can decide whether to take that person into federal custody for a possible immigration violation. 

Between October 2011 and August 2013, ICE issued over 8,700 detainer requests to Colorado jails.

Last April, the ACLU of Colorado wrote to every sheriff in the state explaining that the additional detention amounts to a new arrest, which Colorado sheriffs lack the authority under Colorado law to make.  

Several sheriffs responded within days to the ACLU letter by announcing that they would no longer honor the holds. Over the following months, the ACLU of Colorado advocated through letters and phone calls to the remaining sheriffs to convince them to change their policies and stop imprisoning persons on the basis of ICE detainers.   

According to the ACLU, Colorado is now the first state in the country in which all county jailers have individually decided to reject detainer requests from ICE.  (See note below)

"Colorado sheriffs now agree that they have no legal authority to deprive persons of liberty—even for a few days—simply because ICE suspects an immigration violation," said Mark Silverstein, Legal Director of the ACLU of Colorado. 

"Nevertheless, some sheriffs are continuing to go out of their way to notify ICE of the upcoming release of a suspected immigration violator, in the hope that ICE will take custody as the person leaves the county jail,"  Silverstein added. "By doing so, these sheriffs  violate the spirit and intent of last year’s SB 90 repeal, which recognized that when local police get involved in enforcing federal immigration law, they risk undermining the trust between police and the large immigrant populations that they serve."

In its repeal of SB 90 during the 2013 legislative session, the Colorado legislature lifted requirements of local law enforcement to participate in enforcing federal immigration law in order to “enhance public safety by building trust between immigrant communities and local police” and to “ensure that local resources are focused on public safety issues instead of on immigration issues that are the responsibility of the federal government.”

In June, the ACLU of Colorado successfully negotiated a $30,000 settlement with Arapahoe County on behalf of Claudia Valdez, a woman who called for help in 2012 following a domestic violence incident, was arrested herself, and held for three days in the Arapahoe County Jail after a judge had ordered her release, due to a detainer request from ICE.  

[Note: The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is an exception.  Pursuant to Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, ICE has trained certain deputies of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office and delegated to them the authority to exercise the powers of federal immigration officers.] 

Additional Resources:

Visit the ACLU of Colorado’s End Immigration Detainers campaign page:

Read the ACLU letter sent to all Colorado sheriffs in April:

Read Claudia’s Story: How a Domestic Violence Victim’s Call for Help Resulted in Three Days in Jail and Deportation Proceedings

Categories: Prisoners Rights

Court Sides with ACLU-NJ for Public to Have Access to Footage of Man Who Died in Custody in Monmouth Jail

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Tue, 09/02/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

The ACLU-NJ saw a victory for transparency in a federal court decision issued last week that rejected Monmouth County’s rationale for trying to seal a video recording of a man who died after being restrained at Monmouth County Correctional Institution. The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey sided with the position the ACLU-NJ put forth in an amicus brief for the case, Bornstein v. County of Monmouth.

"The court was correct to recognize that when a person dies while in the care of a public agency, the public deserves an explanation, not secrecy," said ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, who wrote the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief in the case. "The public’s interest in understanding the circumstances surrounding a person’s death in county custody far outweighs what the court identified as vague speculation about the potential harms that could come from releasing the footage."

In July 2010, Amit Bornstein died in Monmouth County Jail after having been booked for failure to appear in court. In the course of a wrongful death lawsuit following his death, Monmouth County sought to seal the previously publicly available security camera footage from the incident only after a third party tried to obtain copies. The footage showed the jail’s booking area and constant-watch area. In his ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert pointed out the insufficiency of Monmouth County’s arguments that releasing the tape would jeopardize public safety generally, especially in contrast to the many arguments in favor of leaning toward public disclosure.

"Here, defendants have failed to identify the particularized harm that would result from the public disclosure of the security footage," said Judge Arpert’s Aug. 27 opinion, which also mentioned less restrictive alternatives Monmouth County could have sought to sealing the entire tape.

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU of Louisiana Statement in Response to MCC Report on Orleans Parish Jail Size

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Wed, 08/27/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NEW ORLEANS — Today the New Orleans Metropolitan Crime Commission has released a report advocating for building a larger Orleans Parish jail, recommending a final capacity of 2,500 beds. The ACLU of Louisiana is strongly opposed to such an increase, and remains in support of the cap of 1438 beds as adopted by the New Orleans City Council.    The inmate data from the MCC report, covering the first six months of 2014, shows a population of 1679 pretrial inmates. Over 400 of those are being held for minor, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, probation and parole violations, and traffic offenses, and could easily be released with no risk to public safety. Many of the remaining pretrial detainees are only being held because of their inability to make bail. If they had been ruled a danger to public safety, bail would not have been set in the first place.    The practice of incarcerating nonviolent offenders is wasteful and senseless.  All of the evidence shows that incarcerating nonviolent offenders actually increases crime, by giving people criminal records and making it harder for them to obtain employment, and by forcing them into situations with more dangerous people.  It also destabilizes families, costs taxpayer funds in incarceration and in public assistance for the families while the person is incarcerated. The jail should be reserved for people who truly pose a threat to the community, rather than nonviolent offenders or people who are simply too poor to post bail.    The MCC report data was gathered over too short a period to be of real use in making recommendations on future jail  population trends. Instead of looking for ways to increase the jail size, what the parish should be doing is finding ways to reduce the jail population — as the ACLU and dozens of other advocacy groups have recommended all along. 
Categories: Prisoners Rights

Arizona Botches Execution, Imposes Cruel and Unusual Punishment on Joseph Wood

ACLU -- Death Penalty News - Wed, 07/23/2014 - 7:29pm

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NEW YORK – At 3:49 PM MST, the state of Arizona executed Joseph Wood by lethal injection. This was the fifth execution in the United States since Clayton Lockett's horrific death in Oklahoma in April. Says Cassandra Stubbs, Director of the ACLU's Capital Punishment Project:

Today the state of Arizona broke the Eighth Amendment, the First Amendment, and the bounds of basic decency. Joseph Wood suffered cruel and unusual punishment when he was apparently left conscious long after the drugs were administered. According to his emergency papers filed by his attorneys, he was choking and snorting over an hour into the process. In its rush to put Mr. Wood to death in secret, Arizona ignored the dire and clear warnings from the botched executions of Oklahoma and Ohio. It's time for Arizona and the other states still using lethal injection to admit that this experiment with unreliable drugs is a failure. Instead of hiding lethal injection under layers of foolish secrecy, these states need to show us where the drugs are coming from. Until they can give assurances that the drugs will work as intended, they must stop future executions.

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU-NJ Calls on New Jersey to Stop Sentencing Adolescents to Die in Prison

ACLU -- Criminal Justice News - Mon, 06/16/2014 - 12:00am

Motion Challenges De Facto Life Sentence Without Possibility of Parole for Man Convicted as Teenager

June 16, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NEWARK – The ACLU-NJ on Thursday, June 12, called for the state of New Jersey to end the practice of giving what amounts to life sentences without the possibility of parole to children who have committed crimes. The filing asked the court to reduce the sentence for James Comer, who at age 17 was sentenced to serve 75 years in prison. Because Comer will be 86, well past the average lifespan for a person in his situation, when he will be eligible for his first parole hearing, he effectively has been sentenced to die in prison.

"It’s unconstitutional to sentence children to die in prison, but for untold numbers of people, this sentence is still a daily reality," said Lawrence S. Lustberg, of Gibbons P.C., who is representing Comer on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. "Certainly, not everyone who is sentenced to a prison sentence as a teenager should be released, but that’s not what we’re asking for. We’re asking that New Jersey recognize that every person sentenced for a crime committed as a child deserves a chance to show that he or she has changed and ultimately deserves to be released."

As a result of recent United States Supreme Court decisions, courts throughout the country, including in New Jersey, can no longer sentence minors to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, James Comer was effectively sentenced to life in prison. Given the average American male lifespan of 77, and the even shorter lifespan of men serving time in prison, he most likely will not live to see his first parole hearing. 

Mr. Comer, now 31 years old, received his sentence in 2003 for his role in four robberies and a felony murder as a juvenile, with no consideration given to his youth at the time. Felony murder differs from murder in that if a murder is committed during the commission of a crime, everyone involved in that crime is deemed responsible for the murder. Although he was not the one who pulled the trigger, Comer received a longer sentence than his two accomplices, the person who was charged with the murder and the other who was an adult at the time. U.S. Supreme Court decisions have dictated that courts cannot give juveniles the harshest jail sentences, and indeed, they mandate states give people convicted of crimes as minors a "meaningful opportunity to obtain release," even if they never ultimately leave incarceration.

The ACLU-NJ's motion applies three U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued over the last 10 years that, combined, transformed the legal system’s treatment of young people. Together, those three cases established that the biological and psychological differences between childhood and adulthood entitle young people to treatment in sentencing that takes into account their unique capacity for change and rehabilitation. According to dozens of studies, the vast majority of adolescents who commit antisocial acts grow out of those inclinations; only five to ten percent of troubled adolescents become chronic offenders as adults. Further, it is impossible to predict which juvenile offenders will develop into relatively stable adults.

"Courts have finally recognized what parents have known for years: adolescents are fundamentally different than adults," said ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom. "As such, the Constitution demands that they be treated differently. Whether New Jersey calls it life without parole or 75 years, the result is the same: children are being condemned to die in prison. The Constitution and common sense both demand an end to this cruel and unusual punishment."

The motion, captioned State of New Jersey v. James Comer, was filed June 12, 2014, in Essex County Superior Court. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Categories: Prisoners Rights

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