Prisoners: The Forgotten Members of Society

Published: April 20th, 2009

Category: News

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky

One population that is often ignored by the legal community—even the public interest law community—is people in prison. As Justice Anthony Kennedy remarked in his 2003 speech at the ABA’s Annual Meeting: “When someone has been judged guilty and the appellate and collateral review process has ended, the legal profession seems to lose all interest. . . When the door is locked against the prisoner, we do not think about what is behind it.”

The reason for this is that most people view prisons as dark worlds that are far away from their own and to which they have no connection, and therefore deserve none of their attention. Many people are unaware of the systematic abuses that occur in prisons: the beatings by guards, the rapes which go unpunished, the sexual harassment of female inmates, the humiliating strip searches, the substandard medical treatment or lack thereof, the lack of concern for mental health, and the mental torture of solitary confinement.

Moreover, many people are unaware of the legal obstacles that prisoners face to even get into court. For example, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a federal law passed to reduce the number of prisoner lawsuits, imposes substantial restrictions on prisoners’ access to courts. Before filing a federal lawsuit, a prisoner must properly exhaust all administrative remedies that the prison offers, which means that if a prisoner misses a deadline for filing a grievance, he or she could be forever barred from filing a lawsuit.

The PLRA prohibits any prisoner who previously filed three “frivolous” lawsuits from ever filing a prisoner lawsuit again, it prohibits any prisoner from suing unless the prisoner has suffered physical injury, and it caps attorney’s fees for all prisoner lawsuits. Thus, prisoners need diligent and talented lawyers willing to enforce their constitutional rights to humane living conditions.

Fortunately, such lawyers do exist. Right here in Gainesville, for example, the dedicated attorneys of Florida Institutional Legal Services, which is funded in part by the Florida Bar Foundation, strive to enforce prisoners’ constitutional rights to humane conditions and to be free from abuse. They have recently litigated cases involving the treatment of inmates in long-term solitary confinement and the gassing of mentally ill inmates while in their cells.

Unfortunately, some people are of the attitude that all prison inmates somehow “deserve” the abuses and inhumane conditions in prison. That view simply ignores the fact that prisoners, whose every move and privilege are controlled by the state, deserve humane treatment. Their punishment is their lack of liberty, and nothing more.

Moreover, when prisoners are treated inhumanely, they lose any incentive to conform their behavior to society’s expectations, and are much more likely to recidivate when released. Indeed, 88% of the roughly 90,000 Florida prisoners will be released one day, and over a quarter of them will return within 3 years. To protect society, inmates should be released from prison feeling as though they can advance in the world.

Thus, this very important topic deserves the time and effort of Florida attorneys. We as citizens should concern ourselves with the operation of American’s prisons, rather than turn our backs on them. As Justice Kennedy put it: “Out of sight, out of mind is an unacceptable excuse for a prison system that incarcerates over two million human beings in the United States.”

Dante Trevisani worked this past year for Florida Institutional Legal Services as part of his Public Interest Law Fellowship, funded by The Florida Bar Foundation.