NLG Sends Letter in Support of Georgia Prisoners to Governor Perdue

December 20, 2010

Governor Sonny Perdue Office of the Governor 203 State Capitol SW Atlanta, GA 30334

Dear Governor Perdue:

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) urges you to exercise your authority over the Georgia Department of Corrections to institute several overdue systemic changes in the Georgia state prison system. The recent prison strike in your state has drawn national attention to deficiencies in the statewide correctional facilities, many of which violate the United States Constitution and longstanding human rights norms. Given that Georgia has the highest prisoner-to-resident ratio in the nation, with one in every 13 persons incarcerated, on parole or on probation, the magnitude of human rights violations is especially noteworthy. In addition, a disproportionate number of people of color make up the state’s prison population, reflecting a nationwide problem of racism in the criminal justice system.

As a bar association, the NLG and its members have long worked to draw attention to and to rectify violations of human rights that prisoners are subjected to in the United States. The Guild is the only bar association in the United States that includes in its membership Jailhouse Lawyers. As the progressive arm of the legal profession, it has defended the rights of prisoners for over 70 years. Guild members have brought litigation aimed at raising awareness of and correcting unconstitutional practices in correctional facilities. We are co-author, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, of The Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, an updated version of the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, originally published by the Guild in 1974.

Guild attorneys defended inmates in lawsuits arising from the 1971 Attica prison uprising in New York State that resulted in the deaths, at the hands of the state, of 39 men on September 13, 1971 who sought only a measure of dignity and respect. More recently, Guild attorneys exposed a pattern of abuse of over 450 female inmates, proving they had been sexually assaulted by male employees of the Michigan Department of Corrections over a five-year period. The trial team provided litigation and social services to the inmates for over 12 years.

Conditions in the Georgia prison system are both unconscionable and in violation of well-established law. In violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishments, the Department of Corrections deprives inmates of adequate medical care, charges excessive fees for the most minimal care and is reportedly responsible for causing inmates undue pain and suffering.

In further violation of the Eighth Amendment, inmates are subjected to extreme punishment for minor infractions of regulations. Prisoners are confined in over-crowded, substandard conditions, notably a result of the practice of “triple bunking” in cells intended to house one inmate. There is scarce heat in the winter and extreme, oppressive heat during the summer months. As well, meals consist of starches and fatty foods rather than a balance of vegetables and fruit.

The DOC has stripped its facilities of all vocational and educational opportunities for skills training, self-improvement and proper exercise. For most inmates, there are no educational opportunities other than obtaining a GED. The DOC has severed access to families by imposing excessive charges for telephone usage and by imposing nearly insurmountable barriers to visitation. Despite clear evidence of eligibility, the Parole Board regularly and without reason denies parole to the majority of prisoners.

We understand that the state of Georgia responded to the recent inmates’ strike with disproportionate use of violence and punishment: non-violent strikers have been severely beaten, thrown into "the hole," had their heat and hot water cut off, and their property destroyed. The overreaction by prison officials highlights the clear and powerful principle of the prisoners' demands - that they are human beings who refuse to be subjected to inhumane, discriminatory, and unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

We urge you to order the Department of Corrections to rectify the above-referenced pattern of deficiencies and to direct the necessary state funds to provide fundamental health, safety and educational needs of Georgia’s inmates.

Sincerely, David Gespass President