Without doubt this is the most significant prisoner rights ruling of the 21st century, and it will no doubt keep that distinction for a long while. Alas, its application for prisoners outside of California will be of limited utility given the facts presented in California, a dearth of law firms with the resources and willingness to bring cases of this magnitude, and few federal judges willing to enforce the constitution.
Through the 1970s and 80s it was common for federal judges to relieve prison overcrowding by releasing prisoners. An immediate response was the building, nationally, of over a million new prison cells. The less immediate response was the enactment of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which was designed to prevent judges from ordering such releases and to force prisoners to live and die in squalid brutality and neglect with limited access to the federal courts.
What actually happens in California in the aftermath of the Plata ruling remains to be seen. The political paralysis and lack of will to address the causes of prison overcrowding mean that the likely quickest solution will be to send more prisoners to private prisons in other states. Releasing lifers held long past their minimum release dates is nowhere on the horizon. Neither is sentencing reform.
As we near the 40th anniversary of the murder of George Jackson and the Attica Rebellion, which ushered in the modern era of American prison reform, Plata reminds us not so much of how far we have come but rather that we have come full circle. The brutality, overcrowding, medical neglect and arbitrary exercise of power that spurred the prison reform movement and judicial intervention of the 1970s have proven themselves largely impervious to progressive reform. Ironically, one effect of prisoner rights litigation has been that in response to prison overcrowding lawsuits, politicians built more prison cells. Thus, a system that imprisoned 300,000 men and women in 1971 today imprisons well over 2.3 million.
In other news, we have only raised PLN’s subscription rates once in the past 11 years, and during that time period we expanded in size from 36 to 56 pages. Unfortunately, printing, postage and operating costs have continued to increase. We will be raising our subscription rates within the next month or two. To lock in our current rates you can subscribe or renew at those rates and extend your subscription as far out as you wish.
With the arrival of the summer months, those of us in minimum security society are traveling and getting out more. If you are in the Brattleboro, Vermont area, feel free to stop by and visit us at the Human Rights Defense Center. Nelly, pictured above, is our office mascot and loves to meet new comrades in the struggle for justice. Nelly is a 12-year-old golden retriever who is our hardest and most dedicated worker. With her sunny disposition she ensures that everyone is happy.
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