by Paul Wright
This month’s cover story reports on the landmark First Step Act, which is the first criminal justice reform bill in decades that might actually benefit some prisoners. Until now, the cavalcade of criminal justice legislation that has emerged from Congress over the past 200 years has been almost uniformly bills that promote more police, more prisons, longer sentences, more criminalization and diminished rights for everyone involved except the police state and its agents. That the First Step Act, as modest and tepid as it is, can be viewed as a positive development is more a testament to the poverty of meaningful criminal justice reform and the bill’s lack of vision than to its actual merits.
Marie Gottschalk is a long-time contributor to PLN, and her books on the criminal justice system, Prison and the Gallows and Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics, are must reading for those seeking a better understanding of criminal justice in America. As she notes, the bulk of the BOP-related changes in the First Step Act could have easily been accomplished administratively by federal prison officials; indeed, they would not have even required executive orders from the president. It is telling that it takes a literal act of Congress for anything that might actually benefit prisoners.
As this issue of PLN goes to press we are starting “Sunshine Week,” which is supposed to celebrate the notion of open government and governmental transparency. As Gandhi replied when asked what he thought about Western civilization, “it’s a good idea.” For us at the Human Rights Defense Center, we yearn for transparency in our nation’s prisons and jails, and every week is Sunshine Week for us – at least fighting for it is.
While many people and organizations celebrate Sunshine Week, it is worth noting that our nation’s police, prisons and jails are among the least transparent government institutions. For decades if not centuries, prison walls have served to keep the public out, the bad news in and the status quo in place. With 2.2 million people locked up, the reality is that most Americans know more about what is happening in North Korea than they do about their local jail or state prison system. That is partly because the mainstream media has historically given low priority to critical criminal justice coverage, due to a desire not to jeopardize their relationships with the police state agencies that facilitate their access to the crime news that sells newspapers and attracts TV and online viewers.
These are all reasons you should support the Human Rights Defense Center. Unlike other media entities, criminal justice is the only beat we cover. Whether it is policing and prosecution in Criminal Legal News or prisons and jails in Prison Legal News, we have no agenda other than reporting on all aspects of the police state and mass incarceration. More importantly, unlike other nonprofit media organizations, we are not a passive vehicle that only dispenses news. We’re very proactive in terms of both obtaining information and ensuring that our nation’s most oppressed and impoverished media consumers – prisoners – can receive and read the news that affects them directly.
Here’s what Sunshine Week looked like for us: On March 8, 2019, we sued the state of New York to obtain documents showing how much the state prison system and state police have paid out in legal actions over a multi-year period. Earlier that week we sued the private prison healthcare company Correct Care Solutions, now known as Wellpath, in state court in Vermont with the goal of establishing that it is subject to the state’s public records law. On March 7 we sued the Marshall County jail in Tennessee, challenging a ban on all books and magazines.
On March 8, a federal judge ruled in our favor in a First Amendment lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections that challenged the censorship of Prison Legal News on the basis that our reporting on prison rape and sexual abuse somehow made our publication pornographic in nature. The obscenity here is that government officials persist in using their power to censor publications like PLN because they don’t like our critical news coverage of their misconduct. And on March 18, 2019, we sued ICE to obtain copies of their contracts with the organizations it uses to cage immigrant children. We will be reporting all of these developments in greater detail in upcoming issues of PLN.
For HRDC, every week is Sunshine Week. Our legal team is constantly filing, fighting and winning lawsuits to ensure public access to information about the police state and how prisoners are being treated or mistreated. Every day our media team is gathering and reporting on news involving policing and the policed, and disseminating it via the Internet, social media and our print publications. We aspire to open, transparent government, and are part of a free, independent press reporting on issues of concern to prisoners and their family members and supporters. None of which endears us to the government and its corporate collaborators.
Year after year, we are the only ones fighting these fights. No one else is suing prison systems on a regular basis to find out what they are doing with our tax dollars, nor challenging their censorship of publications. Your donations go further and get more accomplished in terms of criminal justice reform with HRDC than they will anywhere else. If you believe we should have an open, transparent criminal justice system and believe that an independent media has a place in a plutocracy that is the world’s largest jailer, then please make a donation today and consider becoming a weekly or monthly sustaining donor. We need your support to continue doing our work and fighting the good fight!
Current PLN subscribers should have received a free sample copy of Criminal Legal News, which we also publish. I hope you consider subscribing to CLN as well as PLN, so you can be informed about our entire criminal justice system. Broadly speaking, PLN covers news and case law related to prisons, jails and conditions of confinement, while CLN covers criminal law and procedure, policing, wrongful convictions, habeas corpus and sentencing issues. Readers who subscribe to both publications will receive one every two weeks – CLN at the beginning of the month and PLN around the middle of each month.
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