Welcome to the 26th anniversary issue of Prison Legal News! I would like to thank all the people around the country who have helped PLN and the Human Rights Defense Center grow and prosper over the past 26 years. This includes all of our subscribers, readers, funders, advertisers, book purchasers, attorneys, board members and other supporters. It is thanks to you that we have grown from a 10-page, hand-typed newsletter that focused mainly on Washington state to a national organization that, in addition to publishing a monthly magazine which has expanded to 72 pages, also publishes and distributes books, undertakes extensive litigation regarding the rights of prisoners and publishers, and can carry out and win long-term national advocacy campaigns like our Prison Phone Justice Campaign.
As the years go by it is all too easy to think that the more things change the more they remain the same, except that in the criminal justice context they usually get worse and we rarely see change for the better. Since we began publishing PLN in 1990, Alabama’s prison system has been in a state of perpetual overcrowding and crisis. Just like California and other states, nothing illustrates the political and moral bankruptcy of the legislative and executive branches of government in this country more than their inability and unwillingness to deal with criminal justice reform. This has been and will continue to be an ongoing story.
The problems of abysmal prison conditions, overcrowding, lack of basic medical care and inadequate mental health treatment, among other issues, are not new or isolated. They are also not confined to a few states like Alabama. Rather, these problems are national and systemic. Despite much fanfare, the vaunted bipartisan sentencing reform efforts in Congress appear to be falling apart; at the end of the day, they just can’t stop passing laws that lock people up. We will continue reporting on these developments as they happen.
This season’s presidential campaign has been interesting to the extent that some of the candidates are talking about the need for progressive criminal justice reform. A lot of attention has been paid to Bill Clinton’s 1994 federal crime bill and the role it played in ramping up mass incarceration and expanding the police state. Of course the 1994 crime bill was the brainchild of Vice President Joe Biden; Hillary Clinton duly supported it, and Bernie Sanders voted for it. Since the bill passed by only two votes in the House of Representatives, it can be argued that Sanders’ vote was fairly decisive. Among the other terrible laws enacted by President Clinton, which have been totally ignored during the primaries, are the Prison Litigation Reform Act and Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both signed into law in 1996.
When the PLRA was enacted, 43 state prison systems and countless jails were under federal court orders or consent decrees for unconstitutional conditions of confinement. Today very few are, and it is not because conditions have improved; instead, conditions have largely reverted to the barbaric and grotesque. And despite all the talk – which to date remains mostly that – concerning criminal justice reform, there is little or nothing said about improving the conditions of confinement for prisoners or improving their ability to access the courts. Rights without remedies tend to be meaningless.
The Prison Phone Justice Campaign continues in its efforts to ensure prisoners and their families can access reasonable, affordable telephone communications. Prison phone companies filed suit challenging the FCC’s new lower rates and the DC Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the rate caps, though the rest of the FCC’s order has gone into effect. In spite of the court-ordered stay, a number of prison systems have implemented lower rates anyway. Please continue to send us information and details about prison and jail phone rates, fees and other costs associated with phone services. HRDC will seek to intervene in the litigation on behalf of prisoners and their families to defend the FCC’s order, and if that fails we will submit friend of the court briefs to the appellate court. You can send updates on prison phone issues to our Florida office, “Attn: PPJ,” or email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The struggle for phone justice has been long and difficult, and our opponents are hedge fund-owned telecom companies like Global Tel*Link and Securus, dozens of states and thousands of jails – all intent on keeping the spigot of unaccountable money flowing from the pockets of prisoners and their families. The Human Rights Defense Center is one of the few organizations consistently fighting this fight. If you think your phone bill deserves to be low like everyone else’s in America, please make a donation to HRDC now to help support our efforts. We need your financial support to keep our end of the fight going!
In other news, we have added some great new titles to our bookstore, including Cell Workout by L.J. Flanders, which describes how to get and stay in shape with no exercise equipment. Caught, by Marie Gottschalk, details the rise of the American police state. The Prison Education Guide by Christopher Zoukis provides information on how to obtain a distance education while behind bars, and the Prison Disciplinary Self-help Litigation Manual, by Dan Manville (co-author of the Prisoners’ Self-help Litigation Manual), is self-explanatory. The second edition of The Habeas Citebook by Brandon Sample is going to the printer very soon and should be available for shipping by the end of May. See pages 69-70 for pricing and ordering details.
Enjoy this issue of PLN, and please encourage others to subscribe and purchase books from our growing selection of prison-related titles.
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