Prisoners Using Civil Suits to Fight for Justice

Being the sort of person who follows major civil suits coming out of prisons, my morning reading is often a bit grim and spattered with stories that might seem utterly bizarre to people who aren’t familiar with the abuses of the prison system. Prisoners are suing across the United States for the right to access health care, the right not to be subjected to abusive searches, the right to education, the right to fresh air, the right to wholesome food, the right to access reading material. They are not, of course, just suing; they’re also going on hunger strikes, initiating letter-writing campaigns, and asking for support from members of the public on the outside who can assist them with their campaigns.

What these suits tell us is several things. One, of course, is that conditions in US prisons are gruesome, so much so that filing complaints and requests through normal channels is ineffective, forcing prisoners to bring these matters to court. Asking individual wardens and state or federal prison officials for redress after documenting unsafe and unwholesome conditions doesn’t result in reform, and thus prisoners cannot rely on these means to get problems within the system addressed. At the same time, they’re limited in terms of what they can do from within prison walls, because by very nature of being trapped in prison, their lives are severely restricted, with limited access to the kinds of things people on the outside might take for granted.

They also tell us that prisoners are organised, which defies conventional attitudes about inmates and prisoners. Many people seem to have specific perceptions about who winds up in prison and why, and how human relationships work in prison. These suits often involve prisoners working together on a collective suit, bringing their forces to muster as a group rather than trying to combat the system on their own. They indicate, as do hunger strikes and other collective actions, solidarity within the prison system: a solidarity forged within walls. For those who think of prison solely as a place where total chaos reigns, such suits should be a rude awakening to the fact that stereotypes about prisoners are radically untrue.

And they point out the value of civil rights groups working with prisoners. Many people enter prison with a limited understanding of the legal system and their rights. They learn both from other prisoners and legal texts, when they can access them, and through groups who work with prisoners to provide legal and social education. Such groups play a critical role in working with prisoners to hold the prison system accountable since it cannot be allowed to handle accountability on its own; left to its own devices, the prison system would merrily keep abusing people and the public would know little or nothing about it.

Access to prisons for civil rights groups is critical, because that’s the only way for them to personally document conditions, meet with prisoners, and discuss strategies. Many prisoners lack the financial and social means to file suit on their own, and they rely on the support of these organisations to help them address specific conditions of concern in prison facilities, which makes it no surprise that prison officials often try to limit contact between prisoners and rights groups, to reduce opportunities for interpersonal interaction, and, of course, to prevent such suits from being filed in the first place. Many are quick, for example, to discredit critics of the prison system from within and without, including prisoners, ex-inmates, and members of civil rights groups working on improvements to the prison system.

They also illustrate the critical need to retain a functional civil court system in the United States. While many people may not be able to obtain justice through criminal courts, and while the civil court system can be abused, it also plays a very important role in terms of allowing anyone to bring suit in a matter where they’ve been wronged, and to collect damages or court orders to address the situation. Critics of the system argue that it’s become a haven for ‘nonsense’ and ‘nuisance’ suits, citing situations like that of the woman who sued a prominent fast food company over the temperature of its coffee, but the same critics also sneer at suits filed by prison advocates and other people struggling on the wrong end of the criminal justice system.

There seems to be an attitude that being in prison means people should have no civil rights, instead enduring inhuman conditions because that’s apparently part of their sentence. This attitude suggests that people who want civil rights shouldn’t commit crimes—and it’s rooted, of course, in the assumption that everyone in prison ‘deserves’ to be there by virtue of having committed a crime, received a fair trial, and been sentenced in accordance with reasonable guidelines and discretion. The fact that none of these things are necessarily true doesn’t seem to deter people when it comes to arguing against the civil rights of prisoners.

Prisoner lawsuits are often derided for containing requests for access to very basic thing. Books are not a luxury or a frivolity, for example. They are a human right, as knowledge is a human right, as the ability to acquire information is a human right. Food that is edible, safe for you to eat, and prepared in accordance with religious, medical, or ethical dietary restrictions is also a human right; people deserve to eat food that is wholesome and nourishing. Fresh air is a human right. The very fact that the desire for these things is mocked and considered unimportant is troubling, as is the belief that prisoners don’t ‘deserve’ basic accommodations while kept in the custody of the justice system.

This approach to prison is one that takes it as a penal project, where the goal is to torment, not rehabilitate, and this approach hasn’t proved to be particularly effective when it comes to deterrence and recidivism. Why are so many people in the US clinging to an outdated model of justice, and forcing prisoners to court over matters as basic as the right to bedding?