Author: igirmen (page 1 of 2)

PLAP Testifies to Judiciary Committee on Prison and Parole Reform Bills


On October 14, three PLAPpers joined individuals and organizations from across the Commonwealth at the State House to testify before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, in support of bills aimed at improving criminal justice.  Despite little advance notice, a dozen PLAPpers volunteered to do research and draft written testimony for the Committee’s review, and three PLAPpers – Michael Mullan (LLM), Katherine Robinson (1L), and Eddie Nasser (1L) – appeared in person to present oral testimony on PLAP’s behalf.  Dozens of bills were on the Judiciary Committee’s agenda, but PLAP focused on three issues of considerable importance to its clients.

Solitary Confinement

Michael Mullan expressed PLAP’s support for two bills:  one that would require the Massachusetts Department of Correction to collect data and report on the usage of solitary confinement in state prison, and another that would substantially limit the use and duration of solitary confinement.  Mr. Mullan highlighted PLAP’s unique familiarity with this issue, as PLAPpers represent state prisoners in dozens of disciplinary hearings each year, with solitary confinement always a potential sanction (and often a feature of the pre-hearing process).  For serious charges, the DOC permits sentences of up to ten years in solitary confinement, making Massachusetts an outlier nationally.

Mr. Mullan described the dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement, effects which are well known and acknowledged by experts in many different fields.  Being locked in a small, cramped cell, with solid doors and limited natural light, for 23 hours a day, day after day, takes a heavy toll on the inhabitant.  The harm done to prisoners in solitary is also visited on the community, as most prisoners are eventually released.  The transition to society, which is already difficult, is made even more so when a person has been deprived of normal stimuli or social interaction for extended periods of time.

Mr. Mullan submitted PLAP’s position that given these harms, the DOC should be reporting its usage of solitary confinement, so that it can be monitored and studied, and long-term solitary confinement should be eliminated.  Mr. Mullan reminded lawmakers that solitary confinement is imposed not only on the guilty but on those merely accused of violating prison rules, with indefinite confinement for weeks or sometimes months.

Compassionate Release

Katherine Robinson urged the Judiciary Committee to report out a proposal to bring compassionate release to Massachusetts.  The proposal would allow a court to release terminally ill or permanently incapacitated prisoners to a hospital, nursing home, long term care facility, or home with hospice services.  Again, Massachusetts is an outlier nationally, one of only five states not to have such a law on its books.

Ms. Robinson identified the many benefits of the bill, which would move dying and incapacitated patients from prison to a more suitable setting, where the delivery of appropriate care would be less costly.  Along with more efficient health care, placement outside the prison wall would reduce the burden on correctional staff, who now must protect these very vulnerable prisoners and transport them to and from every medical appointments and hospital trip.

Drawing on PLAP’s experience representing ill and elderly clients, Ms. Robinson demonstrated how prisons are ill-suited to manage these people’s needs.  One PLAP client with dementia, who was wheelchair-bound and legally blind, was disciplined for shouting and flailing his arms at nursing staff when they changed his linens at 1:00 a.m.  Although he was predictably disoriented, he was found guilty of assault and other charges.  The Department of Correction only relented and withdrew its finding after PLAP appealed the agency’s decision to Superior Court.

Parole Reform

Eddie Nasser conveyed PLAP’s support for two bills that would modify the parole process.  The first bill would increase the size of the Board from seven to nine members, and it would require that at least three Board members be drawn from the fields of psychiatry, psychology, sociology, or social work.  Mr. Nasser highlighted significant delays in the Board’s decisionmaking in recent years, which could be alleviated by an expanded Board.  A required complement of mental health or sociology professionals, meanwhile, would be an appropriate response to the prevalence of mental illness in this population, and such professionals would be uniquely suited to make the risk assessments required of the Board.

The second bill would make Massachusetts a presumptive parole state – one in which the presumption is that parole will be granted at the time of eligibility, unless the Board makes a specific determination that parole release would be incompatible with public safety.  Mr. Nasser argued that a presumptive parole scheme would make the convict’s prison record and conduct the main focus of a parole hearing, and it would prevent an undue emphasis on the crime.  Moreover, it would make the parole process more objective and predictable, which would benefit all the parties.

Committee members asked several questions of the PLAPpers without tipping their hand as to their position on these bills.  Over the next few months, PLAP will work with other organizations to encourage the Judiciary Committee to report these bills out favorably.

Idaho prison telephone bills to be capped

Idaho inmates and their friends and families will have more affordable costs for telephone calls, due to a recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC more than two years ago used Idaho as an example of high telephone costs for inmates and their families and friends, citing costs of up to $16.55 for a 15-minute call. The same call in Montana cost $2.04, the FCC said.

At the time, it cost up to $3.80 to place collect and pre-paid collect calls in Idaho prisons, then up to 85 cents per minute plus tax, according to the Idaho Department of Correction. Noncollect calls were a flat $3.40 per half hour.

To read more click here.

Coming Out of Concrete Closets: A Report on Black & Pink’s National LGBTQ Prisoner Survey


During the latter months of 2014, Black & Pink, conducted a survey of our prisoner membership. Nearly 1,200 prisoners responded to our 133-question survey, producing the largest ever dataset available on the experiences of LGBTQ prisoners in the country. The intent of this survey was to get some truth out from behind prison walls about the experiences of LBGTQ prisoners in the United States. Our report aims to share that truth by elevating prisoner voices, stories, and leadership to inspire immediate collective action.

Link to the survey

Jules Lobel at Harvard




On September 4th, just before students began working in Harvard Law School’s clinics and student practice organization, the Prison Legal Assistance Project and the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs hosted a lunch talk entitled Public Service Litigation and Solitary Confinement by Jules Lobel, Professor of Law at the University of Pittsburg School of Law and President of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).


Professor Lobel began his talk by giving a brief history of Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit filed in May 2012, challenging the practice of solitary confinement based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of prisoners held in solitary confinement at the prison’s Security Housing Unit for over a decade. The case was part of CCR’s efforts to challenge mass incarceration and abusive prison policies.


Harvard Law School students who attended the talk were particularly curious about the conditions prisoners are subjected to.


Lobel explained that the Pelican Bay State Prison has one of the largest solitary confinement units of its kind. Prisoners are locked 23 hours a day in an 8-by-10 feet cell, without access to sunlight. The only way they can talk to other inmates is through a hole in the ground in the recreation area they can use for only one hour per day. Research has shown that, as a result, social deprivation and deteriorating health conditions characterize this particulate inmate population.


On September 1st, a landmark settlement was reached to end indeterminate, long-term solitary confinement in all California state prisons. The victory will not only reduce the number of people in solitary confinement but also improve the situation for those who are in solitary confinement.


“Do not think something is impossible in litigation,” Lobel said. “You never know.”


For Offenders Who Can’t Pay, It’s a Pint of Blood or Jail Time


MARION, Ala. — Judge Marvin Wiggins’s courtroom was packed on a September morning. The docket listed hundreds of offenders who owed fines or fees for a wide variety of crimes — hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks among them.

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” began Judge Wiggins, a circuit judge here in rural Alabama since 1999. “For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside,” he continued, according to a recording of the hearing. “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”

For those who had no money or did not want to give blood, the judge concluded: “The sheriff has enough handcuffs.”

Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and working-class people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed that it was improper.

To read more click here. 

Prison vs. Harvard in an Unlikely Debate

On one side of the stage at a maximum-security prison here sat three men incarcerated for violent crimes.

On the other were three undergraduates from Harvard College.

After an hour of fast-moving debate on Friday, the judges rendered their verdict.

The inmates won.

The audience burst into applause. That included about 75 of the prisoners’ fellow students at the Bard Prison Initiative, which offers a rigorous college experience to men at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, in the Catskills.

To read more click here.

Injustice, One Prison Visit at a Time


Fernando Delgado of the Human Right’s Clinic and his students revel the voices of the prisoners in Brazil.

“Fernando’s work in detention centers in Brazil is unparalleled by anything being done by any clinic or NGO outside Brazil,” said Cavallaro. “He’s documented the most serious abuses in the most dangerous centers in the country.”

To read more click here.

Women of Color Bear the Costs of Mass Incarceration


There are a number of ways to put a price tag on the United States’s shameful mass incarceration system. On the most superficial level, $80 billion is how much it costs to keep more than 2.4 million people in our jails and prisons. Then there are the costs to those incarcerated themselves, who often find they’re denied basic civil rights and struggle to find employment, education, and housing for years to come after their release.

But that’s really only the beginning, according to a groundbreaking new report from the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Forward Together, and Research Action Design. Surveys of hundreds of formerly incarcerated people and their families in 14 states show that the true costs — emotional and financial — “continue long after incarceration ends and reach far beyond the individual being

To read more click here

A Chance to Fix Parole in New York


On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will hear oral arguments in a case that may provide a rare chance to reform New York’s antiquated, ineffective and unfair parole system.

The basic idea behind parole is simple: People can change. It isn’t always easy, but if they succeed, they should have the opportunity to get out of prison a little sooner — even if their crime was serious.

When parole works, everyone benefits. But the tough-on-crime politics of the past few decades led many states and the federal government to eliminate parole. States that retained it can be a model for rehabilitating prisoners and shrinking prisons while still keeping the public safe.

The job is delicate; any high-profile crime by a parolee can become a political disaster. But modern risk-assessment tools have helped states make smarter, more informed choices about whom to let out.

To read more click here.

The Pointless Banishment of Sex Offenders


It’s a chilling image: the sex predator skulking in the shadows of a swing set, waiting to snatch a vulnerable child.

Over the past two decades, that scenario has led to a wave of laws around the country restricting where people convicted of sex offenses may live — in many cases, no closer than 2,500 feet from schools, playgrounds, parks or other areas where children gather. In some places, these “predator-free zones” put an entire town or county off limits, sometimes for life, even for those whose offenses had nothing to do with children.

Protecting children from sexual abuse is, of course, a paramount concern. But there is not a single piece of evidence that these laws actually do that. For one thing, the vast majority of child sexual abuse is committed not by strangers but by acquaintances or relatives. And residency laws drive tens of thousands of people to the fringes of society, forcing them to live in motels, out of cars or under bridges. The laws apply to many and sometimes all sex offenders, regardless of whether they were convicted for molesting a child or for public urination.

To read more click here.

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