When the federal government first announced plans to hold suspected terrorists and “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo Bay without charge or trial for essentially the rest of their lives, the mainstream media largely ignored the fact that the U.S. has been detaining citizens – mostly sex offenders – on a similar basis since 1990.
As this month’s cover story indicates, once the mechanism for repression is put in place it needs to be used, and having a civil commitment law creates a need to commit people whether they meet the applicable criteria or not. The federal civil commitment process has received relatively little attention compared to that of various states, and to date there has been a dearth of litigation challenging the conditions of the DOJ’s civil commitment program, which operates in a relative shroud of secrecy.
Like other aspects of the government’s repressive penal machinery over the past three decades, the federal civil commitment program continues to grow. To their credit at least some members of the federal judiciary have been skeptical and, as the cover story notes, have declined to commit many of the defendants whose cases result in hearings. Unlike, say, Minnesota’s civil commitment program; to date, not a single person has been deemed eligible for release since the program was enacted in 1994. The only 24 people released from Minnesota’s civil commitment facility left in body bags after they died.
The good news is that a majority of states (30) have resisted enacting civil commitment laws. Several years ago, the Human Rights Defense Center was among a number of organizations that worked to stop the Vermont legislature from adopting a civil commitment statute. The bad news is that none of the 20 states and the federal government that use civil commitment have recognized it for the expensive failure that it is, and maintain their programs despite enormous societal, fiscal and human costs.
As reported in this issue of PLN, we recently settled our lawsuit against the Sacramento County jail, which had censored PLN under the pretext that our publication is bound with staples and has address labels. The case was hard-fought but we prevailed, obtaining a preliminary injunction and then a consent decree, damages and attorney fees thanks to excellent legal representation from the San Francisco-based law firm of Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, and our in-house litigation director Lance Weber and staff attorney Alissa Hull. We are grateful to our legal team for winning the case and ensuring that the 2,000+ prisoners in the Sacramento County jail system can now receive PLN and other publications with staples and address labels.
As part of the overall decimation of civil liberties and free speech in the U.S., efforts at censoring publications like Prison Legal News, and mail to and from prisoners and detainees in general, are increasing. We have had to dedicate a significant portion of our meager resources to combat these efforts at unlawful censorship. Despite the win in Sacramento, we still have censorship cases pending against the state prison systems in Florida and New York, and against jails in Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana and Michigan. We are strongly committed to ensuring that prisoners can receive PLN and the books we distribute.
In the latter regard, we have added a number of new titles to our book list, including several on criminal law and procedure which many PLN readers had requested. Please review our book catalog on pages 53 and 54 for the latest additions. We will be running reviews of the new books in upcoming issues of PLN.
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