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ACLU -- Criminal Justice News

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

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

N.C. Has Little-Known For-Profit Prison for Immigrants; ACLU Investigation of Similar Prisons Reveals Abuse, Inhumane Conditions

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 12:00am

Report Shows Federal Bureau of Prisons Incentivizes Mistreatment, Shields Immigrant Prisons from Scrutiny

June 10, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

WINTON, NC – Rivers Correctional Institution in Hertford County, North Carolina, is one of the 13 little-known CAR (Criminal Alien Requirement) prisons for immigrants in the United States. For a new report, Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Texas have investigated three CAR prisons in Texas run by GEO Group, the same private prison company that operates Rivers Correction Institution in North Carolina. The report reveals inhumane conditions and egregious mistreatment of immigrants awaiting deportation in prisons removed from the public eye that enrich the for-profit prison industry at tremendous cost to taxpayers.   The culmination of a four-year investigation, the report shows how the federal Bureau of Prisons incentivizes private prison companies to keep CAR prisons overcrowded and understaffed. The companies provide scant medical care that is often administered incorrectly, if delivered at all.   "At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. "The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons come from the government’s decision to allow the suffering inside these for-profit prisons. For instance, ten percent of the bed space in CAR prisons is reserved for extreme isolation — nearly double the rate in normal federal prisons. I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake — simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day."   According to the report, prisoners at the three GEO Group-run CAR prisons in Texas have reported that they are often denied necessary medical treatment, frequently put in isolation cells, and are forced to live in cramped, overcrowded conditions. A prisoner protest during the summer of 2013 at the GEO Group-operated Reeves County Detention Center reportedly ended with guards tear-gassing dormitories, shooting rubber bullets, locking down the entire facility, and punishing prisoners by putting them in extreme isolation. The improvements the prisoners had hoped to achieve – better medical care, more food, and less crowded living conditions – never came.   Read the report:
Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU Finds Abuse, Inhumane Conditions, at Little-Known Prisons for Immigrants Run by Private Companies for Federal Government

Tue, 06/10/2014 - 12:00am

Report Shows Federal Bureau of Prisons Incentivizes Mistreatment, Shields Immigrant Prisons from Scrutiny

June 10, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NEW YORK – Today the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas released the report Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, a devastating look into the secretive "Criminal Alien Requirement" or "CAR" prisons for immigrants. In a four-year investigation of five CAR prisons in Texas, our researchers found pervasive and disturbing patterns of neglect and abuse of the prisoners–all non-citizens, most of whom have been convicted only of immigration offenses (such as unlawfully reentering the country).

"At the CAR prisons we investigated, the prisoners lived day to day not knowing if their basic human needs would be met, whether they would get medical attention if they were hurt or ill," said Carl Takei, Staff Attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project. "The Bureau of Prisons creates perverse incentives for the for-profit prison companies to endanger human health and lives."

In total, the 13 CAR prisons across the country hold more than 25,000 immigrants. Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, noted, "Every year we lock away tens of thousands of immigrants simply for unlawfully crossing the border. Why waste hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars on inhumane prisons when we could use civil proceedings to process these cases? The CAR prisons come with a moral and economic price tag we can’t afford."

The report details the relationship between each of the three companies that run them–CCA, GEO Group, and MTC–and the federal Bureau of Prisons, including the ways that the Bureau and the companies work together to cover up the prisons’ conditions.

"Ten percent of the bed space in CAR prisons is contractually reserved for extreme isolation–nearly double the rate of isolation in normal federal prisons. I spoke to prisoners who spent weeks in isolation cells after being sent there upon intake–simply arriving at prison was the reason why they were locked in a cell and fed through a slot for 23 hours a day," said Takei. "The shameful conditions inside CAR prisons are a direct result of the government’s decision to allow suffering inside these for-profit prisons."

In Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in Our Shadow Private Prison Industry, the ACLU and the ACLU of Texas tell the stories of prisoners who have been torn from their families by the extreme distances (often 1,000 miles or more) between a CAR prison and a prisoner’s hometown and by the high phone rates the private prison companies charge for phone calls.

Among its recommendations to the federal government, the report calls on the Bureau of Prisons to strengthen oversight of CAR prisons, end the use of contractually binding occupancy quotas for CAR prisons, and stop spending taxpayer money to shield basic information about private prisons from public disclosure. It also urges the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to return immigration enforcement to civil immigration authorities.

The report is available here:

Categories: Prisoners Rights

33,000 Arizona Prisoners Now Can Sue State over Health Care, Solitary Confinement

Thu, 06/05/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

SAN FRANCISCO – Today the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously ruled that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office can move forward with a lawsuit against the state of Arizona on behalf of all 33,000 prisoners in the state’s 10 prisons and all future prisoners. The ruling is critical to obtaining necessary systemic changes to conditions of confinement in the Arizona Department of Correction (ADC), and is a key victory for civil rights plaintiffs throughout the country.

"The State of Arizona has long ignored the basic needs of people confined in its prisons, including the constitutional mandate to provide adequate health care. Prisoners have suffered unnecessarily and even died while waiting for basic care," said David Fathi, Director of the National Prison Project at the ACLU, who argued the case for the prisoners in the Court of Appeals. "This ruling brings us closer to requiring the executive and legislative branches to end their neglect and indifference once and for all."

The groups filed the federal lawsuit in 2012, challenging years of inattention to the health needs of state prisoners and improper and excessive use of solitary confinement, resulting in serious harms and unnecessary deaths. Judge Neil V. Wake of the U.S. District Court in Phoenix certified the case as a class action in March 2013; today’s decision affirms that ruling.

The Court of Appeals listed failing to hire enough medical staff, failing to fill prescriptions, denying inmates access to medical specialists, adopting a de facto “extraction only” policy for dental issues, and depriving suicidal and mentally ill inmates access to basic mental health care.

The Court allowed the ACLU and the Prison Law Office to represent the prison population in Arizona as a class because all the prisoners shared a common interest in not being subjected to a "substantial risk of serious harm resulting from exposure to the [ADC’s] policies and practices governing health care." "The Court rejected the state’s arguments that the prisoners don’t have enough in common to warrant class action status, adding that the state had a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the law:

[G]iven that every inmate in ADC custody is likely to require medical, mental health, and dental care, each of the named plaintiffs is similarly positioned to all other ADC inmates with respect to a substantial risk of serious harm resulting from exposure to the defendants’ policies and practices governing health care.

In addition to seeking adequate medical, mental health, and dental care for Arizona’s prisoners, the lawsuit challenges the state prisons’ use of solitary confinement.

"Among our plaintiffs are the seriously mentally ill and other prisoners whose mental health has markedly deteriorated in solitary confinement – weeks, months, sometimes years of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation," said Don Specter, Director of the Prison Law Office. "Sometimes the damage is permanent. Arizona must stop this cruel and unusual punishment."

The case, Parsons v. Ryan, is scheduled to go to trial in October 2014.

In addition to the ACLU and the Prison Law Office, other attorneys on the case are Perkins Coie LLP, Jones Day, and the Arizona Center for Disability Law.

Categories: Prisoners Rights

Over 23,000 ACLU Petition Signers Urge Tennessee to End CCA Contracts

Thu, 05/15/2014 - 12:00am

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

NASHVILLE – Over 23,000 people have signed a petition urging Governor Bill Haslam to end Tennessee’s contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America because of its track record of mismanagement and abuse in its prisons. The ACLU of Tennessee delivered the petition to the governor today, during CCA’s annual shareholder meeting.

"CCA promised us better, cheaper and safer prisons, but time and again they’ve broken that promise, putting the bottom line ahead of the public good," said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. "Tennesseans and people across the country are sending our elected officials the clear message that they are done funding CCA’s prison profiteering at the expense of our communities."

The petition states:

Governor Haslam:

For far too long, Tennessee has given tens of millions of tax dollars to the Corrections Corporation of America. Our scarce public resources shouldn’t be going to a for-profit prison company with a horrific track record of abuse, neglect, and mismanagement.

Texas, Idaho, Mississippi and Kentucky have ended their contracts with the Corrections Corporation of America. Tennessee must do the same.​

Nashville-based CCA, the country’s oldest and largest private prison corporation, has contracts to operate seven facilities in Tennessee, at a cost of nearly $100 million annually to Tennessee taxpayers. CCA is also under criminal investigation by the FBI for falsifying thousands of hours of staffing records at an Idaho prison. At an Ohio prison, prisoner-on-staff assaults increased more than 300 percent between 2010, when it was a state-owned prison, and 2012, after CCA took the facility over from the state. An Ohio state investigation found that CCA had violated 47 state standards, including prisoners being forced to defecate in bags because they lacked access to running water.

The company, which reported $1.7 billion in gross revenue in 2012, has been condemned by a wide range of religious groups, citing the inherent conflict between the justice system’s goal of rehabilitation and the private prison industry’s profit motive. Additionally, three major companies recently publicly pledged to divest more than $60 million from CCA and other private prison companies for financial and ethical reasons. 

The petition is the culmination of ACLU-TN’s "Who is CCA?" public awareness campaign outlining the private prison giant’s history of human rights abuses, campaign contributions, political lobbying, and lack of transparency, both locally and nationwide. Campaign elements include an infographic, video, op-eds, blog posts, and a policy report.

The "Who Is CCA?" campaign hub can be found here.

ACLU-TN’s letter to the governor can be found here.

The number of petition signers continues to grow online here.

Categories: Prisoners Rights

Reports by Neutral Experts Condemn Monterey County Jail as Violent, Unconstitutional, and Lacking Basic ADA Protections

Tue, 04/29/2014 - 12:00am

Failure by County Officials to Adopt Criminal Justice Reforms Leads to Violence, Unsafe Conditions

April 29, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

SAN FRANCISCO – A series of reports issued by national experts on jail conditions expose in the most graphic detail to date the Monterey County Jail as a place riddled with violence where prisoners are at serious risk of grave injury, where jail officials fail to provide prisoners with adequate medical and mental health care and where prisoners with disabilities are denied access to jail services, programs and activities.

The reports were made public today as part of a motion for class certification in a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, the law firm Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP and Monterey County Public Defender James Egar charging that conditions at the jail are overcrowded, dangerous, discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Four of the reports being made public today were authored by experts chosen jointly by county officials and lawyers representing the plaintiffs to investigate various aspects of the jail’s conditions.

"These reports make clear that there are serious structural and systematic problems with the jail and that conditions inside the facility do not meet constitutional and ADA standards," said Michael Bien of Rosen, Bien Galvan & Grunfeld. "Rather than continue to waste taxpayer money litigating these issues, county officials should address them with serious and detailed remedial plans."

According to incident reports from the Monterey County Sheriff’s Department, there were more than 150 separate incidents of violence between prisoners from January 2011 through early-September 2012, and in more than 100 of these incidents at least one prisoner required medical treatment. Violent incidents have been reported in 26 of the jail’s 29 housing units.

In one of the reports made public today, jail expert Michael Hackett says prisoner and staff safety are compromised by a jail population that "by any definition…is overcrowded." Despite a capacity of 825 prisoners, the jail maintained an average monthly population of more than 1000 between June 2010 and September 2013 and reached a height of 1,144 prisoners in May 2013.

In a second report, expert Dr. Michael Puisis makes clear that failures by jail officials to provide prisoners with adequate medical care leaves them vulnerable to injury, unnecessary suffering and even death. Staffing shortages are so severe, Puisis reports, that numerous duties are “not performed consistently or…performed poorly, includ[ing] evaluation of health requests, chronic illness care, evaluations in sobering and isolation cells, management of patients in the [Outpatient Housing Units] and intake assessments. Segregation rounds and infection control surveillance are [simply] not performed.”

A third expert report details how jail officials systematically deny to prisoners with disabilities access to services, programs, activities and accommodations in the Jail. The Jail fails to provide sign language interpreters to prisoners who use sign language to communicate, even during the intake process, medical appointments, and disciplinary hearings. None of the areas of the Jail comply with federal and state regulations regarding accessible housing for people in wheelchairs. And prisoners who cannot walk up stairs are denied access to the outdoors, exercise and religious services when housed in areas of the jail where those programs can only be accessed by walking up a long flight of stairs.

A fourth expert selected by the plaintiffs found overwhelming systemic problems with the jail’s mental health system that place prisoners with mental illness at great risk of suffering, deterioration in their mental health condition and suicide. Among the most shocking practices is jail officials’ use of "rubber rooms," filthy windowless cells in which they place suicidal prisoners for multiple days. These cells lack toilets, beds and sinks, and prisoners are stripped naked and forced to sit, lie and sleep on the same floor in which a grate serves as a toilet. Over the past four years, problems with jail's mental health care system contributed to all three suicides committed by prisoners.

"Too many of my clients have died by suicide or through preventable disease while housed in the Jail," said Egar. "Enough is enough."

The many problems in the jail are exacerbated by a failure on the part of county officials to fully invest in alternatives to incarceration that would both alleviate jail crowding and reduce the county’s recidivism rate. An inadequate program to effectively assess the necessity of locking people up while they await trial and before they are even convicted of a crime has resulted in nearly 80 percent of the jail’s population being comprised of pre-trial detainees. And the county has failed to make use of the option of allowing prisoners convicted of low-level, non-serious crimes offenders to serve a portion of their sentence under supervision in the community rather than behind bars.

"Despite profound and persistent overcrowding, county officials have not taken advantage of numerous available opportunities to safely reduce the jail population," said Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU of Northern California. "It is imperative that the county address the jail’s high pretrial population, utilize split sentencing more often and make full use of other alternatives that would reduce the need for incarceration while making the community safer by equipping people in the criminal justice system with the support they need to successfully transition back into the community and lead stable lives."

"The conditions at Monterey County Jail – the dangerous overcrowding, the withholding of basic medical and mental health care, and accommodations for prisoners with disabilities – should not be tolerated," said Eric Balaban, senior staff counsel with the ACLU’s National Prison Project in Washington, D.C. "Our jails and prisons must protect prisoners’ health, not sabotage it."

Copies of today’s filings in Hernandez v County of Monterey No. CV 13-2354 PSG (N.D. Cal.) are available online at:

Categories: Prisoners Rights

ACLU-TN Launches "Who Is CCA?" Campaign

Tue, 04/15/2014 - 12:00am

Initiative Exposes Private Prison Corporation’s Financial Stake in Mass Incarceration, Mismanagement of Facilities

April 15, 2014

NASHVILLE – In an effort to increase public awareness about special interest groups with a stake in mass incarceration, the ACLU of Tennessee today launched the "Who Is CCA?" campaign.  This public education initiative focuses on the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America. With over sixty correctional facilities across the country, including six in Tennessee, CCA is the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit prison company.

"The Corrections Corporation of America has taken over prisons in Tennessee and across the country promising to run them better and cheaper," said Hedy Weinberg, ACLU-TN executive director. "But they’ve broken their promises time and again, using our tax dollars to fund facilities where corporate profit trumps accountability."

CCA is currently under criminal investigation by the FBI after admitting in court to falsifying 4,800 hours of guard posts required under an Idaho contract.  An independent auditor found that CCA failed to fill at least 26,000 hours of required posts in 2012 alone, for an average of 500 hours per week of missing security staff. CCA continued to collect payments from the state for guards who were never assigned to work, while the facility in question amassed four times the number of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults than the state‘s seven other prisons combined. The Idaho Department of Corrections identified inadequate staffing as the primary cause of the violence.

In a 2012 audit, the Tennessee Comptroller’s office found that a "recurring issue was apparent" at CCA facilities with Department of Corrections staff noting several noncompliance issues "due to CCA staff not entering information, not entering information in a timely manner, entering inaccurate information, and/or entering insufficient information" into the system for managing inmate data.

In addition to mismanagement, evidence of cost-savings in private prisons is mixed at best. Numerous studies have found no cost advantage to private prisons. Tennessee pays CCA nearly $97 million annually, including contractual obligations to pay the corporation for empty beds.

The "Who Is CCA?"campaign’s focal point is an online resource center housing an infographic, statistical information, a video, a policy report, a petition urging the state of Tennessee to end CCA contracts, blog posts and other resources. The campaign is launching online.

The campaign also illuminates the millions of dollars CCA spends on lobbying and political contributions, as well as litigation to ensure that it is not subject to the same open-records laws as publicly-run prisons.  In Securities and Exchange Commission filings, CCA identifies threats to its bottom line as "reductions in crime rates," lower minimum sentences for non-violent crime and cost-saving measures such as greater use of probation and electronic monitoring.

"Taxpayers need to know how CCA’s profit motive encourages the company to cut corners and get more prison contracts that discourage sensible reforms," Weinberg stated. "CCA has repeatedly broken its promise to run prisons better and cheaper because in the end its duty is to the shareholders, not the taxpayers."

ACLU-TN’s "Who Is CCA?" campaign resource center can be found at:

The "Who Is CCA?" infographic can be found at:

To sign the petition urging Tennessee to end its contracts with CCA, please visit:

Categories: Prisoners Rights