by Paul Wright
This month’s cover story reports on developments in the Georgia prison system, which continues from bad to worse in terms of its rising body count of dead prisoners. This fits into the pattern of massive, systemic neglect, brutality and violence that currently seems to be especially concentrated in the states of the former Confederacy. Besides Georgia, also Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida are mired in similar levels of penal collapse caused by political neglect and cruelty.
None of this is a new or recent development. PLN has been reporting on this for decades. The only thing remarkable is that as bad as things were, they seem to be getting worse at every level. One thing exacerbating already bad conditions is heightened staff turnover among jailers across the country. While the mainstream media reports on difficulties employers have finding and hiring workers, nowhere does this seem to be truer than at prisons and jails. Southern prisons and jails already had low pay, bad working conditions and high staff turnover before COVID-19 hit, and that has gotten worse with some states reporting 40 and 50% guard vacancies. Over the years, I have heard prison officials complain that in the rural areas they have chosen to build so many prisons in the past three decades, they are competing against Walmart for guards. Walmart seems to be winning because if nothing else, at least it offers employees air conditioning, which none of the prisons in the Deep South do. Upcoming issues of PLN will report on developments in the other Southern states.
Also, in this issue is an article by Dr. Michael Cohen regarding Monkeypox and the danger it poses to prisoners. As we go to press, there have been initial reports of prisoners infected at the Cook County jail in Chicago. As COVID-19 recently has shown (preceded by AIDS/HIV, HCV, TB, MRSA, etc.), American prisons and jails serve as ideal vectors where contagious and infectious diseases can and do readily spread among prisoners and staff alike. Poor sanitation, overcrowding, rampant disease and inadequate medical care all help ensure that detention facilities act as petri dishes for disease and illness, coupled with the indifference of prison officials and political and public health officials who make their disdain for the value of prisoners’ lives obvious.
The Human Rights Defense Center publishes Prison Legal News, and we also publish another monthly magazine, Criminal Legal News. PLN subscribers who were on our mailing list for the August issue should have received a free sample copy of CLN by now. I hope you enjoy CLN and consider subscribing. For many years, PLN subscribers asked that we publish news and information about criminal law and procedure. Rather than dilute PLN by delving into another big area of law and news, we decided to launch CLN in 2017, and it has been ably edited by Richard Resch. Subscribing to PLN and CLN ensures you are informed on all criminal justice system developments, from policing, criminal trials, conditions of confinement, police abuse, prosecutorial misconduct and parole and probation and much more. See this issue of PLN for information on savings available to those who subscribe to both publications.
We have also launched our annual fundraiser. Besides publishing PLN and CLN and distributing and publishing books related to criminal justice issues, we also do a massive amount of advocacy and litigation. Readers will receive our fundraiser packet in October which details all the many activities HRDC undertakes on behalf of prisoners, their families and those negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. One thing we do a lot of is litigation; as this issue goes into production, we are scheduled for trial in August in West Palm Beach, challenging the Florida DOC’s ongoing censorship and ban on PLN and CLN. In September we are scheduled for trial in Arkansas on remand from the 8th Circuit in a suit challenging the Baxter County Jail’s ban on all mail and publications, and in October we have a trial on similar issues against the Union County Jail, also in Arkansas.
Our small team is effectively litigating and winning cases around the country on issues as diverse as ensuring access to mail and publications, seeking compensation for the wrongfully convicted and class-action lawsuits challenging prison and jail phone practices and debit-release card policies, among other things.
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