Category: Civil Rights (page 1 of 2)

The Group Protest That Wasn’t


By: Megan Corrigan (’22) & Jack Lubin (’22)

Our client is a community organizer, and he is great at what he does. For the past 10 years, he has organized successful celebrations for Black History Month, Kwanzaa, and Juneteenth, as well as information sessions about knowing your legislators and more. He does all of this work from behind the wall of a medium-security prison. Despite the challenges, our client holds popular events with well-known guests, ranging from elected officials to intellectual and religious leaders, as well as community-based nonprofit organizations. They come out to celebrate African American heritage alongside incarcerated people, a rare opportunity for those within and those without to make a meaningful connection.

Not rare enough, evidently, for prison officials. Our client’s events are planned in accordance with prison rules and regulations and, of course, require institutional approval. Two Decembers ago, when planning the popular and highly anticipated annual Kwanzaa Commemoration, our client ran up against ever-shifting institutional boundaries that have by now become commonplace. Over the years, notwithstanding the popularity of these events, the prison assigned them to smaller spaces and reduced the maximum number of attendees. This year’s Kwanzaa Commemoration was no different; the celebration’s capacity would be even more sharply limited than usual.

No explanation was given for the new capacity limits. No claim was made that the larger events of past years were unsafe. A smaller Kwanzaa event would not be safer; it would only be smaller, and less available to people in prison. More people wanted to attend than could be admitted. When several prisoners asked our client why they would not be able to attend the celebration, he informed them of the prison’s decision limiting the size of the room. Understandably, people began to react.

How did they react? There was no riot, no sit-in, no gathering to protest the smaller gathering. Instead, incarcerated people who were left out of the Kwanzaa Commemoration filled out a grievance form and submitted it. The grievance process is designed to field, investigate, and respond to concerns raised by people in prison about the conditions of their confinement. Prisoners are instructed to make their voices heard through this mechanism. The “grievance process,” according to the Massachusetts regulation establishing it, “promotes problem resolution and provides inmates with a means to address their concerns in a responsible manner, thus enhancing skills for successful re-entry”, a lesson aimed at preventing recidivism. In practice, our clients experience a process that mainly offers procedural hurdles and a cursory denial of relief.

Despite their well-founded skepticism, dozens of prisoners who were left out of the Kwanzaa event filed grievance forms about the attendance restrictions. The prison’s response was not to look into ways to accommodate more attendees, or indeed to evaluate the concerns raised at all. It responded by placing our client in solitary confinement. Twelve days later, he was released from solitary confinement but issued a disciplinary report, charging him with “inciting a group demonstration.”

We represented the client at his disciplinary hearing. No evidence of incitement was ever presented, nor was there any group demonstration that our client could be said to have incited.  Individuals who had been denied access to the Kwanzaa event registered their disapproval via the grievance process. Thankfully, the hearing officer saw no violation either; our client was found not guilty and avoided further punishment.

We took this case on while taking our first-year criminal law class, in which our professors asked us to consider the purposes that our criminal justice system aims to serve. That question remained on our minds as we prepared for the hearing. What purpose was served by throwing our client into a solitary cell for 12 days? Or by charging him with inciting a group demonstration? Who was made safer? Safer from what?

Prison officials took an assembly designed to educate and uplift its participants, and not for the first time, they limited access to it. Prisoners who were denied entry responded not with shouts or weapons but with pen and paper. They complained in writing, using the designated procedure for resolving complaints. Prison officials interpreted these complaints – a stack of forms – as a “group demonstration,” punished the event organizer for them, and then sought even more punishment.

Why? It seems that in prison, one unwritten rule controls: prisoners will not be treated like human beings. Through that lens, it becomes easier to understand why officials view the act of prisoner expression as such a grave threat – whether an expression and celebration of shared tradition, or the expression of disagreement with a policy. Self-expression humanizes, and humanizing is not part of the mission.

This post is part of a series that highlights the work of PLAP student attorneys defending clients who face discipline for acts of expression.

PLAP Team Victorious at Massachusetts Appeals Court

On March 22, students from Harvard PLAP won a ruling from the Massachusetts Appeals Court that will improve access to courts for incarcerated people challenging the discipline that is meted out against them. The Appeals Court held that the sixty-day statute of limitations for such challenges runs from the date that the Department of Correction (DOC) serves its final decision on a prisoner, not an earlier date of its choosing. Richard Brooks v. Department of Correction. 

Plaintiff Richard Brooks appealed to the Superior Court from a guilty finding in a prison disciplinary hearing under a Massachusetts statute that permits judicial review of such proceedings. The statute calls for an “action in the nature of certiorari” to be filed “within sixty days next after the proceeding complained of.” M.G.L. c. 249 s. 4. The Massachusetts Department of Correction sought dismissal of the complaint, arguing that the sixty-day clock started to run not when it issued notice of the disciplinary decision, but three days earlier, when the prison superintendent dated her decision. The Superior Court agreed, even though the DOC had taken no action on that day to inform anyone of the decision, and even though the agency’s own decision form prominently featured the date of service, in its headings and in a final line confirming the date of service. 

PLAP students Madeleine DeMeules (‘21), Lena Melillo (‘22), and Matthew Disler (‘21) took charge of the appeal on Mr. Brooks’s behalf, supervised by Managing Attorney Joel Thompson. They developed the arguments and prepared the brief as a team in the spring of 2020, despite having to work remotely during the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Matthew Disler argued the appeal, after preparing with his fellow team members and with the generous assistance of the Honorable John Cratsley (Ret.), Director of the HLS Judicial Process in Trial Courts Clinic, who led a moot argument. 

The PLAP team’s efforts paid off, as the Appeals Court found its arguments persuasive. The court saw no basis for the notion that the statute of limitations should begin to run before the Department of Correction issues notice of its decision to the prisoner. “Indeed, under the department’s rationale, agencies could deprive parties of all opportunity to seek certiorari review through the expedient of waiting for the sixty days to expire before issuing notice, an outcome that the court found “illogical.” The court also noted that the DOC’s own regulation governing disciplinary proceedings calls for the prison superintendent not only to decide the disciplinary appeal but also to notify the prisoner in writing. 103 CMR § 430.18.  

Mr. Brooks will now finally be heard on the merits of his complaint in the Superior Court. DeMeules, Melillo, and Disler look forward to presenting his claima challenge to the DOC’s punishment of Mr. Brooks for wearing dark slacks and a white button-down shirt to his religious group’s services, an outfit the DOC contends is a threat to prison security. 

CARES Act Relief for Incarcerated People Is Long Overdue


By: Joel Thompson, Joan Steffen, Marta Canneri, and Will Ossoff

On March 27, 2020, Congress passed the CARES Act, which offered crucial relief to American families struggling with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Six months later, people in prison and jail can finally receive that relief as well. On September 24, 2020, in response to a lawsuit filed by the law firm Lieff Cabraser and the Equal Justice Society, a federal district judge in California ordered the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to make CARES Act stimulus payments available to people in prison and jail. Judge Phyllis Hamilton issued a preliminary injunction requiring the IRS and Treasury to stop blocking such payments and expedite payments previously denied, concluding, “plaintiffs and those similarly situated are being deprived basic necessities such as communication with loved ones, food, and hygiene products. Because they often exist on the margins of the economy and struggle to acquire basic necessities, the harm suffered by these individuals cannot be adequately remedied with later monetary relief.”

Since then, PLAP and other advocates have set to work disseminating the word and trying to make the process accessible and available to incarcerated individuals. PLAP Policy Director Joan Steffen took the lead on drafting a CARES Act info sheet for incarcerated individuals, which PLAP is now mailing to all individuals who request it.  

In response to our efforts to disseminate this information, some have questioned whether incarcerated individuals are as entitled to CARES Act relief as other Americans. Critics of the September 24th order tend to pose their concern in the form of a question: how will these payments actually stimulate the economy? The same question could be asked about the payments made to people outside of prison, of course. There is a risk, in even asking this question, that we continue to legitimize the usual myths:  

MYTH: Incarcerated people, by virtue of their convictions and prison sentences, are bad and undeserving, while all other people, whatever wrongs they might have committed in their lives, are good and deserving.

If we wanted to stimulate the economy but wanted a moral litmus test so that only the worthy people among us received stimulus checks, relying on incarceration is an inaccurate, and racist, way to do that sorting. We are not living in an old western movie. An incarcerated person is more than the act that led to her incarceration, and at the same time a person can cause a lot of harm to others, yet never go to prison for it. Let’s not pretend that our criminal legal system handles all societal wrongdoing equitably. And let’s not decry systemic racism in the abstract, but pretend it doesn’t exist when it comes time to write a check.

MYTH: Incarcerated people are loners, devoid of family, friends, or loved ones.

People in prison have spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends. Their loved ones may need help with the rent, groceries, and gas money (including to visit them; the visiting rooms have reopened in some facilities), just like everyone else. Knowing what we know about the socioeconomic status of people in prison and the families from which they come, it’s actually more likely that stimulus money will be spent and not just thrown in the bank.  

MYTH: Our prison systems provide everything a person in prison could possibly need and more, for free.

It bears remembering how much people in prison — and their loved ones — pay for the few amenities made available to them. In her order, Judge Hamilton recognized that “[i]ncarcerated persons often cannot bear the entirety of costs associated with acquiring basic necessities in prison—food, hygiene, and communication. The remaining costs often fall on the families of the incarcerated.”  

Phone calls are charged at well above market rates in most prison systems.  Many prison systems now make email available — if the incarcerated individual can pay for the prison-approved tablet, and the fee charged for each email message.  People in prison and their loved ones continue to rely heavily on traditional mail to stay connected, which means paying for postage, envelopes, pen, and paper. During the systemwide lockdowns brought on by the pandemic, hot meals at the chow hall were replaced by meager, repetitive (and sometimes spoiled) cold foods delivered to cell, and incarcerated people have relied more than ever on buying food from the canteen, along with additional soap or other goods that have taken on increased importance for all of us in 2020. As with phone calls and email, people in prison buy canteen items at above-market prices.

In fact, stimulus funds sent to people in prison are most likely to end up in the hands of the many companies in this country whose entire business model is built around government contracts for exclusive services to jails and prisons. They enjoy a literally captive consumer base, and that lack of competition is reflected in their pricing and service quality. Many of these contracts call for a percentage of the revenues to be paid back to the jail or prison that hired them, as a “commission.” Bianca Tylek and her organization, Worth Rises (, provide more information about the industry that turns imprisonment into profit. A recent Boston Globe column also highlights the steep costs that phone calls from correctional facilities impose on people incarcerated in Massachusetts and their families. The sad fact, then, is that stimulus payments made to people in prison will be spent, even if those dollars do not go as far for incarcerated people as they do for everyone else.

Those who are concerned that their taxpayer dollars will not be reinvested in the economy by incarcerated people can thus rest easy. The real question is why it took so long for those who “exist on the margins of the economy and struggle to acquire basic necessities” to receive the same relief that their fellow Americans received months ago. 

If you or one of your loved ones is interested in applying for stimulus payment while incarcerated in a U.S. prison or jail, please check out PLAP’s CARES Act info sheet or Lieff Cabraser’s webpage dedicated to the lawsuit.

Joel Thompson is the Supervising Attorney of Harvard PLAP; Joan Steffen is a PLAP Policy Director; Marta Canneri and Will Ossoff are the PLAP Publicity and Communications Directors. 

MA Sex Offenders Suing Department of Corrections

A group of plaintiffs filed a civil suit on Monday, October 17th arguing that the civil commitment process for some sex offenders in Massachusetts has violated state law.  In a civil commitment, sex offenders deemed “sexually dangerous” may be held at the Massachusetts Treatment Center after the completion of their prison sentences.  The DOC is required to release detainees when they are no longer deemed dangerous, but the plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that they were detained past this date.  The lawsuit seeks an end to the practice of keeping detainees past their ordered release date as well as $5 million in damages.  Read more about the lawsuit and the plaintiffs on the Boston Globe.

“Prison is Not for Punishment in Sweden. We Get People into Better Shape”

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us,” says Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service.

The United States prison system is widely regarded as broken. Prisons were supposed to “rehabilitate” offenders who have wronged society by punishing them with a prison sentence. Unfortunately, the United States prison system has failed to rehabilitate thus producing high recidivism rates and overall crime. In Sweden, they are testing a new approach to crime. Oberg, the director-general, believes in addressing the inmate’s needs in order for he or she to correct the behavior that led them to prison in the first place. Sweden’s prison rates are significantly lower after they implemented this approach. They’ve also been fortunate enough to actually close prisons because of the lowered crime rate.

Why Isn’t Prison Justice on the Ballot This Tuesday?

Help Lady Liberty Out and Read the Full Article Here.


It seems as if criminal justice reform has been a mainstream topic since the 1970’s, but continuously we see prison reforms being halted or ignored by congress. The “tough on crime” approach was of major attention when New York City promised to harshly tackle the issue, but now that talk of reforming has taken place, the actual chance to take action on it seems to be absent from campaigns and ballots. Why? Well, most people pay attention to the problem of crime and then demand change, not the problems affecting criminals. However, as the article points out, America wears a scarlet letter of mass incarceration, which is an embarrassment for our country. And with so many people being affected by prison sentences, more people should be demanding change for the current system. Just because the crimes are happening behind prison walls doesn’t mean we can turn a blind eye. In fact, the author suggests, by reforming the criminal justice system, we will see a positive change in other areas, most notably, the economic inequality gap.


Changing Prison From the Inside Out




Mark Olmsted vowed to never forget his fellow inmates that he would leave behind after his release from a nine month prison stint, and he certainly did not. When he got out he continued to keep in contact with his former cellmates, sending them money here and there or just a friendly letter to let them know they haven’t been forgotten by the outside world. As he continued to campaign for prison reform, he received surprising, and seemingly impossible, tweets from an inmate in an Alabama prison. Turns out that some inmates in southern area prisons are networking via contraband cell phones to inform us, the outside world, of their lives and prison conditions. This network has come to be known as the Free Alabama Movement. A part of it’s statement purpose reads, “And this Movement isn’t about getting ‘some outside support,’ or having our family ‘call the politicians or mayor’s office,’ ‘call the news station’ and on and on and on. The reason for this is simple: we can’t form a movement conditioned on ‘outside’ people without first unifying the ‘inside people.'” So, take a moment out of your day to hear the truth about prisons and prison life from the best experts there could possibly be: the inmates themselves. 

Free Alabama Movement Official Website– Here you can listen to the prisoners who have been forgotten, silenced and ignored. Listen to them, let their voices be heard, and spread their message further along in the outside world.

AND the Free Alabama Movement is ALL over youtube, recording their lives on the inside and exposing the hard truths to the outside.

Not only are there youtube videos being posted by FAM, but one inmate actually hosts a talk show from inside the prison, allowing for other inmates with contraband cell phones to call in and speak on his online radio station.

PLAP’s Own Joel Thompson on HuffPost Live: Questions Over 15 Deaths in New York Jail


HuffPost Live Segment “Questions Over 15 Deaths in New York Jail”

HuffPost Live had a segment dedicated to the lack of healthcare prisoners receive while incarcerated, and most importantly, why we should care about the healthcare rights of inmates. Joel Thompson, a PLAP attorney, was invited to be a guest contributer to the segment, enlightening viewers about the carelessness and corruption that plauges inmate healthcare. Watch the clip above to hear it from Joel Thompson himself, as well as other guest speakers, Bradley Brockmann, Jake Pearson, Lumumba Bandele.

Coverage of Pumpkin Fest Riot Compared to Ferguson Protests Exposes Media’s Overt Racism


Above, a photo from the scene at Keene State College’s Pumpkin Fest this weekend.

We’ve been hearing about the Ferguson protests since the day Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer, Darren Wilson. The media has described the protesters as everything from “thugs” to “domestic terrorists” that are out to destroy their town of Ferguson. However, anyone who has been following the story knows that the protests by these “unruly thugs” is nothing more than a prime example of the media’s racism and the ways it criminalizes young African-American men. Compare the “riots” of Ferguson to the chaos of Pumpkin Fest at Keene State College this past weekend and you’ll be able to see the problems that plague the intersection of race and media exposure. Why weren’t the young, privileged white men referred to as “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” as they stood atop flipped cars and threw beer bottles at police? Imagine the images we saw from Keene State this past weekend were of the Ferguson protestors- would the media be using language such as “high spirited” and saying the protests had “gotten out of hand?” Ferguson protestors are using civil disobedience to protest the way they are being gravely mistreated and negatively profiled by police officers because of the color of their skin, resulting in extreme violations of their civil rights. Keene State rioters were blatantly disobeying police officers because, as one student is quoted as saying, “it’s a blast to do things you aren’t supposed to be doing.”

“The Throwaways”: New Film Spotlights Impact of Police Killings and Mass Incarceration in Upstate New York


New documetary film “The Throwaways” follows Ira McKinley, a filmmaker and ex-convcit, as he guides viewers through nearly empty city of Albany, New York while shedding light on the prison and police problems that have plagued marginalized populations for years. Ira McKinley describes his life before prison, explaining that his father was shot and killed by cops when he was just 14 and he quickly became “addicted to the life.” To support his new lifestyle, including a crack habit, he began robbing stores which ultimately landed him in prison until 2002. After he was released, he describes how hard it was for him to re-enter society as an ex convict, deeming himself a “marked” citizen. Ira McKinley bravely takes viewers into a world of racial profiling, which he refers to as “The New Jim Crow,” based on the book by Michelle Alexander, mass incarceration, and the slow death of once heavily populated, black communities.

Click here to watch the interview or read the full article.

Click here to learn more about Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

Click here for “The Throwaways” documenary website.

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