BEYOND BARS: The Long View of Prisoners’ Rights Litigation

By Jeremiah Phoenix
Dannemora, NY

Prisoners’ rights litigation is a challenging area of law to participate in, especially from the inside. In a very real way it’s a direct confrontation between prisoners and keepers of custody. Judicial review of prison conditions developed in part because hard-learned experience showed that ignoring significant issue scan lead to outright rebellion. Everyone suffers if that happens. Intuitively, then, one might think that prison administrators would welcome a way to peacefully and reasonably resolve otherwise unresolvable disputes. But that’s often not what happens at all. Instead litigation is often reacted to as if it’s rebellion itself, with threats, retaliation, and in far too many cases, actual violence.

These challenges aren’t easy to deal with. Retaliation and violence don’t just injure the body. The mind suffers, too. When staff recruit crooked inmates to do their dirty work for them, the ability to trust people wavers. When papers and property are stolen, “lost,” or destroyed, speech itself can be lost. With a largely apathetic prison population and few willing to demand better lives, it can be hard to find support and encouragement.

In the face of all this adversity, it can be tempting to give in to that voice in the back of the mind sneakily whispering, “Give up. There’s no point. You won’t make a difference in the end, anyway.”

But that voice has a small view of the world. It doesn’t take the big picture into account. It doesn’t take a long view. It looks only at the immediate difficulties and ignores how far-reaching a righteous act—like a lawsuit demanding better living conditions or seeking to hold the corrupt to account—can be. Time has a way of amplifying the good far beyond anything the initial actor can foresee. It builds on itself and on the work of those who come after. This is especially true in law, where principles of precedent can spread a single good argument into an entire network of enduring decisions. A good case can change the lives of the people who brought it in the first place, and of many people who come later and will never know it could have been otherwise.

Litigation matters, then, no matter how difficult it is. It’s how we decide as a society how we’ll behave toward each other when other democratic processes aren’t enough. And the people who bring cases matter even more, because cases don’t bring themselves. The people who strive for ideals, whether in prison or in the public square, are the people who drive society forward.

Obviously none of it’s easy. Nobody should expect it to be. Making the world better is hard. But if we keep in mind that we are where we are because of all the people who came before us that didn’t give up, it’s easier to keep going ourselves.