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From the Editor

By Paul Wright

As we close out the last issue of the year, our cover story on the Oregon prison nurse who was eventually convicted and sentenced to prison for raping women prisoners in his care illustrates the confluence of medical neglect and sexual abuse by staff, both of which flourish behind bars. As we see in prisons and jails around the country, many detention facility employees are literally serial rapists and predators who amass stunning numbers of victims thanks to the inherent lack of transparency and accountability which characterize the modern American gulag.

Even more amazing of course is that these rapes are all occurring on government property which is continually surveilled, and the prisoners, at least, have no privacy. They also have no place to flee or escape from these assaults.

As this issue of PLN is going to press, Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota policer who was convicted of murdering George Floyd by placing his knee on his neck for 9 minutes as Floyd struggled for breath, was stabbed in the federal prison in Arizona he was being caged in. In itself this is not surprising. As PLN readers know, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has exceptionally high levels of violence, has long struggled with underfunding and understaffing and even by American standards, has stunning levels of no accountability. The bigger surprise has been the number of people, some of them civil rights attorneys, prisoner rights advocates and even medical professionals, expressing joy at Chauvin’s assault.

Chauvin was sentenced to prison, he was not sentenced to being stabbed, abused, sexually assaulted or medically neglected or mistreated, just as no one is. If this were what people wanted, we can quickly dispense with the entire court system and have vigilante justice or police death squads. One criminologist attributes the massive expansion of the American prison population over the past 50 years to a desire to lock up people society is mad at. It may well be true, but to the extent probably everyone is disliked by someone else, the idea that people in government detention somehow “deserve” to be mistreated or abused simply becomes an excuse to mistreat and abuse everyone.

For all the rivers of ink that have been spilled over the Holocaust remarkably little has been written about the criminal victims of the Nazi death machine. After Communists, criminals were the second group of people the Nazis rounded up and put in concentration camps. They had, after all, campaigned on a “tough on crime” platform. Anyone who has ever watched Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda movie Triumph of the Will can see the remarkable almost verbatim similarity between Nazi politicians in the 1930s and American politicians from the 1970s when talking about criminals. I think one reason for the relative silence on the topic is that people somehow think child molesters deserved Dachau and murderers deserved Auschwitz. As soon as people think any other human beings deserve to be mistreated or abused by the government, then they are just quibbling over who gets the abuse and mistreatment.

As we close out the year we are doing our annual fundraiser. Please donate if you can afford to do so and encourage others to do so as well. For over 33 years the Human Rights Defense Center has steadfastly advocated for prisoner rights, first in Washington state and then nationally. For us, criminal justice reform and human rights for American prisoners are all we do. It is not a sideshow or an afterthought. Every month we report on prison and jail issues in Prison Legal News and on criminal law, police misconduct and mass surveillance in Criminal Legal News. We ship and distribute hundreds of self-help and research books each month and do media interviews and outreach across a variety of media platforms every week. Our legal team is busy litigating for prisoners to have access to books and magazines and for public transparency of what happens in prisons and jails around the country.

This year we have won major victories in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which held that a jail could not conceal how much money they paid a prisoner beaten by guards to settle his lawsuit. A trial court in Vermont held that Wellpath was the functional equivalent of the government and had to disclose documents related to prisoner health care. A federal court in Seattle held that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) had to disclose details about its litigation payouts, and much more.

On the censorship front, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a court in Washington state had erred in dismissing HRDC’s lawsuit over the censorship of its self-help book, The Habeas Corpus Citebook: Ineffective Assistance of Counsel. HRDC successfully sued the Madera County jail in California, which banned all publications. After six years of litigation, an appeal and two bench trials, a federal judge in Arkansas held that the Baxter County jail’s ban on publications was unconstitutional and enjoined the practice. We also sued the Nebraska prison system for banning books and magazines, and they quickly settled to allow publications once again.

These are just some of the highlights of what HRDC is doing all over the country, every day, every week, year in and year out. We currently have statewide censorship suits pending against prison systems in Missouri, Illinois, North Carolina and Arizona.

Our opponents take issue with the work that HRDC does because we are effective. Right now, Centurion Health, the private, for-profit healthcare company, is suing HRDC to try to prevent us from seeking public records related to their healthcare services for prisoners in Florida. When was the last time you heard of the 26th biggest corporation in America suing a small nonprofit media organization to keep it from reporting the news? We are fighting back and need your help to do so.

We need your support to keep doing this. The reality is that no one else in many parts of the country is bringing these lawsuits to challenge the censorship of books and magazines, or the lack of transparency in law enforcement agencies.

Prisoners should be able to read books and magazines. Everyone should know what law enforcement agencies are doing. America needs a free, independent media that can and does advocate for progressive criminal justice reform and can deliver timely, useful, accurate information people can use to advocate and help themselves. That is the quick simple premise that HRDC has stood and fought for over the past 33 years. Will you donate to support our work?

All donations, big and small alike, help. Please share this with your friends and social networks. Please enjoy this issue of PLN and everyone at HRDC wishes our readers a happy holiday and a new year of greater struggle and resistance.  

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