Paul Stanley Holdorf, Esq., NLG New Jersey Chapter
In the wake of the September 9th work stoppage, a wide variety of prisoners’ rights violations emerged in large numbers across multiple jurisdictions. Prisoners from Washington State to Florida reported being subjected to excessive uses of force, segregation and disciplinary findings without due process, increases in security levels, and facility transfers. Some prisoners suffered punitive action for merely speaking to the media about prison conditions in the aftermath of the strike.
Events at the Kinross Correctional Facility (KCF) in Michigan illustrate the scale of human degradation perpetrated by prisons following September 9th, where prisoners reported being forced to soil themselves as a result being left in restraints on the ground in the rain for a prolonged period without access to bathroom facilities. In the days that followed, approximately 250 prisoners were transferred out of KCF, many of them catapulted from minimum (“Level 1”) security levels to maximum (“Level 5”).
NLG legal response teams composed of Guild attorneys, legal workers, and organizers have emerged across the country to challenge this widespread repression. The Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network (PLAN), a project of the NLG New Jersey Chapter, has been invited to participate on these teams in several states so that the experiences and lessons learned in the aftermath of the strike can be disseminated seamlessly across jurisdictions. Given the scope of prisoner rights violations being reported and the extensive need for help, it was important to adopt a legal response model that would impart high impact outcomes with limited time investment. Filing notices of claim, often in conjunction with public records requests, has been shown to serve this purpose.
Whether filed with the courts or departments of correction, notices of claim serve several important functions. They voice prisoners’ allegations in a manner that cannot be ignored by senior prison officials as internal grievances sometimes are (although, of course, legal response teams always encourage prisoners’ exhaustion of remedies in parallel with these efforts). They demonstrate to prison systems the concern and involvement of legal professionals from the outside community in a manner that has consistently been shown to insulate prisoners from further abuse and retaliation. Notices trigger preservation obligations, which protects evidence from destruction. This is particularly important in the case of digital evidence, such as staff emails and surveillance video, which is often overwritten as a matter of standard procedure after only a few short weeks. And, whether or not an incident ultimately proceeds to court action, notices of claim create a public record that can help other litigants establish a pattern and practice of staff misconduct and prisoner abuse in a given prison system in the future.
The efforts of Guild legal response teams to the strike are actively underway in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and beyond. That the Department of Justice (DOJ) has initiated an investigation into prison conditions in Alabama as a direct result of the strike demonstrates that the message of this effort is being heard.
It has become clear that prisoners mobilizing on the inside, the NLG legal response teams challenging their repression, and the organizers who are mobilizing media and activism in the wider community share a heartfelt commitment to 9/9 as the onset of a sustainable movement, as opposed to a one-day event. Prisoner activism inside is ongoing, and acts of prison retaliation are increasing over time. Our goal is to support the sustenance and expansion of this important movement of legal responses to prisoners’ rights violations, bolstering in particular collaboration between people inside and organizers and legal response teams in the outside community. ■
Photo: In August, this banner appeared above the Lloyd Expressway in Evansville, IN. (Twitter: @wheretheriverfrowns)