Category: Court decisions (page 1 of 2)

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. 

Policy Directors Sheridan Cunningham and Joan Steffen Testify on Revisions to Medical Parole Regulations

On September 16, PLAP Policy Directors Sheridan Cunningham and Joan Steffen submitted written testimony to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (EOPSS) on proposed revisions to the regulations governing medical parole, 501 CMR 17.00. Sheridan also provided oral testimony in a Public Hearing held by EOPSS on September 16.

Medical parole is a mechanism by which prisoners who are terminally ill or permanently incapacitated can request supervised release from prison. The medical parole statute (G.L. c. 127 § 119A) was created in 2018; it was included in the Criminal Justice Reform Act that was passed that year. The proposed revisions to 501 CMR 17.00, the specific regulations governing the administration of medical parole, arose after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court invalidated existing regulations earlier this year. The Supreme Judicial Court ruled that 1) prison superintendents are still required to review petitions that they deemed incomplete or inadequate; 2) the burden for developing a medical parole plan, procuring a medical diagnosis, and assessing the petitioner’s risk of violence should be shifted to the superintendent; and 3) the commissioner must supply the petitioner with all documents that the superintendent submitted with their medical parole recommendation.

Sheridan and Joan argued that further changes are needed to expand accessibility of medical parole and improve the system’s responsiveness to major health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. As they argued in their testimony, “The current COVID-19 pandemic underscores the mismatch between the prison environment and the needs of elderly, infirm, and seriously ill prisoners.” Sheridan and Joan further noted, “Although we have seen the court-ordered release of many pre-trial detainees, releases of sentenced prisoners have remained consistent with release rates prior to the pandemic.” While the Supreme Judicial Court “specifically cited medical parole as one of the tools at the DOC’s disposal to effectuate releases,” the current and proposed parole regulations have “impeded, and will continue to impede, the release of medically vulnerable petitioners unnecessarily.”

Sheridan and Joan argued for four specific changes to the existing regulations:

  1. The definition of “debilitating condition” should be removed or revised to exclude unnecessary and irrelevant conditions.
  2. The assessment for risk of violence outlined in the proposed regulation should be revised to exclude irrelevant considerations.
  3. To avoid unnecessary inefficiency and delay, the medical parole petitioner should be afforded additional procedural safeguards.
  4. The regulation should include specific provisions for serving cognitively disabled prisoners who, by reason of their disability, cannot otherwise access medical parole.

Sheridan and Joan’s full testimony can be read here.

Upcoming PLAP Event: “A Conversation with Jules Lobel: Public Service Litigation & Solitary Confinement.”

Here is the link to the event:


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.


Break the Prison to Poverty Pipeline


“The way we treat prisoners while they are locked up, after all, directly affects how they fare when they re-enter society”- Clio Chang, author of article.


Rikers Island has started to improve conditions for inmates with the  elimination of solitary confinement for youth ages 16 and 17. However, much more needs to be done to rehabilitate, not punish, America’s most vulnerable citizens. Rikers Island has an infamous reputation for being especially brutal to its inmates for minor disturbances and has most recently been brought into the spotlight for it’s lack of rehabilitation for inmates. The United States has become a strictly punitive system that makes it impossible for inmates to escape their prison history and then successfully re-enter society. Even though in theory prisons were meant to rehabilitate via educational programs, job trainings etc., it has developed into a system of punishment that lacks the resources necessary to break the prison to povery pipeline. Click here to read the full article.

Patrick Unveils Overhaul for Bridgewater Hospital

ryan_statehospital5_met Above, Bridgewater State Hospital


Bridgewater State Hospital has been under fire after a patient died by the hands of several correctional officers while they were attempting to place him in restraints. The death, ruled a homicide, sparked an investigation into the hospital and the treatment of mentally ill prisoners. As a result, Deval Patrick has written up a plan that consists of decreasing the use of restraints and isolation of patients and hiring more properly trained clinicians that can effectively and appropriately handle mentally ill individuals. Many mental health advocates are in favor of this overhaul, grateful that patients will be able to get the help they truly need from a licensed clinician, instead of relying on correctional officers to do the job. Click here to read the full article.


Shanesha Taylor Regains Custody of her Kids!


PHOTO: Shanesha Taylor is hugged as Rev. Jarrett Maupin looks on, outside Maricopa County Superior Court, July 18, 2014 in Phoenix.

If you’ve been reading the PLAP blog regularly, then you’ll remember the post titled “Mothering Between a Rock and a Hard Place” that told the story of Shanesha Taylor and her struggle as a poor, single mother. Well, today I learned that  Shanesha Taylor has been awarded custody of her children again! Shanesha’s children were taken by Child Protective Services following the charges of child abuse for leaving her two youngest children in a car while she went for a job interview. Fortunately, the incredible support Shanesha received from the public was enough to influence the courts. It’s about time poverty stricken single mothers are given a voice, a chance, and a change.

Change starts on the ground level! Stand up for justice!

 Click here for the original article


Mothering Between a Rock and Prison



Shanesha Taylor is just one of the thousands of single mothers struggling to make a suitable living for her and her children in the United States. It was during this struggling time that she, without child support or child care, had to bring her two children with her to a job interview. Shanesha left them in the car for no longer than 45 minutes, and she is now facing up to seven years in prison. Does this sound fair? At first it would seem as if Shanesha acted irresponsibly, but then again as the article suggests, we have to consider the structural policies and governmental factors that are contributing to single mother poverty and the tough choices they have to make regarding their children. Also, separating the children increases their chances of suffering developmental delays and emotional issues. Instead of wondering how Shanesha could have left her children in the car, we need to ask the question that could prevent more single mothers from having to face this horrible decision: how and what can be done by policy makers to help single mothers in America climb out of poverty in order for them to provide a safe and sufficient life for their  children?  This isn’t about what type of parent one is, it’s about the tough choices these single mothers are forced to make when they receive no help.

Death Row Inmates Sue Louisiana Facility for Cruel and Unusual Heat Conditions

Three inmates at the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary in Louisiana are suing the state’s department of public safety and corrections for the prison officials rejecting requests of relief for those suffering in death row cells that trap heat reaching as high as 195 degrees Fahrenheit. These cells have little to no ventilation, where inmates spend more than 23 hours a day inside, sometimes sleeping on the floor where its somewhat cooler, but have to endure fire ant bites in the process. Various organizations have begun investigations into the matter and have found the conditions horrifying, and a fundamental violation of Constitutional protections. The lack of climate control places the inmates in a dangerous situation, and the ability to maintain in good standing health very limited; such circumstances can often result in the death of an inmate(s).  The lawsuit is asking that the temperature be controlled so that the heat index doesn’t exceed 88 degrees and that ice water is distributed to the inmates on a regular basis.  After 6 months of deliberation, Judge Brian A. Jackson ruled that the high heat levels were in violation of the inmate’s 8th amendment rights, which were housed in the death row cells.

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