Tag Archives: ACLU

The East Mississippi Correctional Facility Is ‘Hell on Earth’

By Carl Takei, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality

March 5, 2018

E. Mississippi Correctional Fire

At the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, where Mississippi sends some of the most seriously mentally ill people in the state prison system, even the most troubled patients are routinely ignored and the worst cases of self-harm are treated with certain neglect. The conditions at EMCF have cost some prisoners their limbs, their eyesight, and even their lives.

In 2013, the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and prisoner rights attorney Elizabeth Alexander filed a class-action complaint on behalf of all the prisoners held at EMCF. As the case heated up, the law firm of Covington & Burling LLP joined as co-counsel, providing major staffing and support. Despite years of attempts by Mississippi to derail the lawsuit before our clients even saw the inside of the courtroom, the case will finally proceed to trial Monday.

The lawsuit against EMCF describes horrific conditions at the facility: rampant violence, including by staff against prisoners; solitary confinement used to excess, with particular harm to prisoners with mental illnesses; and filthy cells and showers that lack functional toilets or lights. It also sheds light on a dysfunctional medical and mental healthcare delivery system that puts patients at risk of serious injury and has contributed to deaths in custody.

Nowhere was this institutionalized neglect more clear than in the life, and death, of T.H., a patient at EMCF with a history of severe mental illness and self-harm. On Jan. 31, 2016, T.H. stuck glass into his arm. Instead of sending him to the emergency room, a nurse merely cleaned the wound with soap and water. The following day, he broke a light bulb and inserted the shards into his arm. This time he required eight stitches.

Less than two weeks later, he cut himself with a blade hidden in his cell and then tried to hang himself. It was only later that month, after he reopened his arm wound with more glass, that mental health staff finally placed him on special psychiatric observation status.
Yet, because he wasn’t properly monitored, T.H.’s series of self-injury continued unabated until April 4, 2016. Early that afternoon, he stuck his arm, dripping in blood, through a slot in his cell door and asked to see the warden. A lieutenant saw T.H.’s bloodied arm, but, rather than call for emergency assistance, simply left the area. Two hours later, T.H. was observed unresponsive on the floor of his cell.

E. Mississippi Correctional Blood on the Door
In response, the prison warden opted to call for a K-9 team to enter the cell with dogs before letting medical professionals examine the patient. By then it was too late — T.H. was dead, having strangled himself with materials from inside his cell. He never once had a proper suicide risk assessment or any treatment to address his self-harm.

The lackadaisical and unconstitutional approach that EMCF staff takes toward prisoner healthcare cost T.H. his life and has caused well-documented suffering among countless other mentally ill prisoners. And it all happens in the context of a prison rife with violence, where security staff often react with excessive force to mental health crises and allow prison gangs to control access to necessities of life, including at times food.

The Constitution requires that if the state takes someone into custody, it must also take on the responsibility of providing treatment for their serious medical and mental health needs. This means, among other measures, hiring qualified medical staff to provide necessary care for people with mental health disorders, creating systems for access to care so sick patients can see a mental health or medical clinician, and making sure that medical care is provided without security staff impeding it.

The ACLU and our co-counsel are fighting to ensure that such care is available at EMCF, where the state of Mississippi has continued to lock some of the most vulnerable prisoners in dangerous and filthy conditions and deny them access to constitutionally required mental health and medical care.

I witnessed those conditions firsthand when I visited EMCF in January 2011 with fellow ACLU attorney Gabriel Eber and two medical and mental health experts. At that time, we were horrified to discover that Mississippi’s designated mental health prison was closer to a vision of hell on earth than a therapeutic treatment facility.

When I walked into one of the solitary confinement units, the entire place reeked of smoke from recent fires. I tried to speak to patients about their experiences, but I could barely hear them over the sounds of others moaning and screaming while they slammed their hands into metal cell doors.

Despite repeated warnings from nationally renowned experts brought in to assess conditions at the prisons, a meeting with top Mississippi Department of Corrections officials, and an offer by the ACLU to help MDOC pay to diagnose and fix the problems at EMCF, Mississippi officials permitted these conditions to continue unabated. Rather than take responsibility for fixing this prison, these officials merely switched contractors. In 2012, they swapped out private prison giant GEO Group, Inc. and replaced them with another private prison company, Management & Training Corp., which is perhaps best known for its horrific record of abusing and neglecting immigrant detainees. The state has also switched prison medical contractors multiple times, with little improvement from one to the next.

But the nightmare might soon be over. Over seven years since we first visited the cesspool that is EMCF, our clients will be allowed in court for the first time, asking that their constitutional rights finally be recognized. That recognition won’t undo the great harms they’ve suffered. But by fulfilling the Constitution’s promise of protection, we can stop new harms and horrors at EMCF, of which there have been too many for too long.



Despite increased social acceptance, marijuana possession arrests increase: ACLU


ACLU calls for Pa. to legalize marijuana

By Steve Marroni


HARRISBURG – The findings of a new study that black people are eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though usage rates are just about the same, does not surprise the ACLU.

“The racial disparities in possession arrests have been around for a long time,” said Andy Hoover, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “It is distressing that it’s getting worse.”

But what is a surprise, Hoover said, is that possession arrests for marijuana are on the rise around the state, despite an ever-increasing social acceptance.

“We’re seeing now that 59 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalization. Only 31 percent oppose,” he said today, adding “the rise in possession arrests is distressing.”

But he hopes lawmakers are on board with the call the ACLU made today at the state Capitol to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania.

You can read the full report, Cannabis Crackdown, on the ACLU’s website.

In summary, the authors of the report studied marijuana offenses in Pennsylvania from 2010 to 2016. The study shows:

  • Possession arrests of adults increased 33 percent in that time,
  • Black people were eight times more likely than white people to be arrested, despite similar usage rates,
  • The state police total arrests per year more than doubled from 2,221 to 4,612 in that seven-year period,
  • The cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers has been more than $225 million in that time.

“Legalization is the only solution to this problem,” Hoover said.

Philadelphia engaged in a decriminalization effort in the last three years, said Matt Stroud of the ACLU, who is an author of the report. The data there shows a remarkable decline in marijuana-related arrests there – about 88 percent.

Cannabis consumer advocate Chris Goldstein said since Philadelphia’s decriminalization, there have been no marijuana-possession arrests of the more than 300,000 students on the city’s college campuses, as opposed to Penn State, where 250 students are arrested per year for marijuana possession.

Cannabis consumer advocate supports ACLU stance to legalize

And unlike Philadelphia, the other 66 counties in Pennsylvania show a remarkable increase in arrests, Stroud added.

In reading this report, state Rep. Jordan Harris of Philadelphia, who is chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, agrees that marijuana should be legalized. The current laws are “nothing be a war on the people,” he said, and research shows legalization does not make communities less safe.

State representative discusses racial bias in marijuana arrests

“It’s time to stand on research, and the research shows it’s time to legalize marijuana in Pennsylvania,” he said, getting applause from the supporters attending the event.

It is particularly disturbing that racial bias has creeped into marijuana arrests, he said.

“I would much rather my law enforcement officers work on murder, rape and protecting our children than spending our valuable tax resources on arresting people for smoking a jay on their way home from a long day of work,” he said.

The police have more important things to focus on than “a non-violent thing called smoking a joint,” added state Rep. Ed Gainey of Allegheny County.

“We can’t continue to incarcerate,” he said. “What we have to do is legitimize and legalize a drug that the people should have the choice to use.”

State representative calls for marijuana legalization

And consumer advocate Goldstein said while the racial disparity is disturbing, so are the number of lives ruined by possession arrests. He said 70 percent of those arrested for possession are between 18 and 30 years old, and these arrests unfairly impact their ability to find jobs, get an education and make a life for themselves.

While the ACLU and some lawmakers support legalization, it may be a challenging road ahead, but ACLU spokesman Hoover said he is hopefully.

“There is a lot of conversation here in the General Assembly about smart justice,” he said. “There is a recognition that the policies implemented in the last 30 to 40 years have failed. We believe that cannabis legalization is part of that discussion.”

Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat from Montgomery County, first introduced a marijuana-legalization bill in 2013, and has a new version of that bill in the Senate Law and Justice Committee now. His spokesman, Steve Hoenstine, said this bill calls for marijuana to be sold at state stores, where there is already a sales and monitoring system in place.

And those sales are projected to “completely close the revenue gap with a brand new, sustained revenue that does not involved a tax increase.”

He said it only makes sense to bring in these funds rather than spending taxpayer money on enforcement.

Marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, Hoover added, adding the “reefer madness mentality is old, inaccurate and wrong.”

This post has been updated with more information about a bill currently in committee.


Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use…

Interview: Why the US Should Decriminalize Drug Use




Neal Scott may die in prison. A 49-year-old Black man from New Orleans, Neal had cycled in and out of prison for drug possession over a number of years. He said he was never offered treatment for his drug dependence; instead, the criminal justice system gave him time behind bars and felony convictions—most recently, five years for possessing a small amount of cocaine and a crack pipe. When Neal was arrested in May 2015, he was homeless and could not walk without pain, struggling with a rare autoimmune disease that required routine hospitalizations. Because he could not afford his $7,500 bond, Neal remained in jail for months, where he did not receive proper medication and his health declined drastically—one day he even passed out in the courtroom. Neal eventually pled guilty because he would face a minimum of 20 years in prison if he took his drug possession case to trial and lost. He told us that he cried the day he pled, because he knew he might not survive his sentence.[1]


Just short of her 30th birthday, Nicole Bishop spent three months in jail in Houston for heroin residue in an empty baggie and cocaine residue inside a plastic straw. Although the prosecutor could have charged misdemeanor paraphernalia, he sought felony drug possession charges instead. They would be her first felonies.

Nicole was separated from her three young children, including her breastfeeding newborn. When the baby visited Nicole in jail, she could not hear her mother’s voice or feel her touch because there was thick glass between them. Nicole finally accepted a deal from the prosecutor: she would do seven months in prison in exchange for a guilty plea for the 0.01 grams of heroin found in the baggie, and he would dismiss the straw charge. She would return to her children later that year, but as a “felon” and “drug offender.” As a result, Nicole said she would lose her student financial aid and have to give up pursuit of a degree in business administration. She would have trouble finding a job and would not be able to have her name on the lease for the home she shared with her husband. She would no longer qualify for the food stamps she had relied on to help feed her children. As she told us, she would end up punished for the rest of her life.


Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use, just as Neal and Nicole were. Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime. More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year. And despite officials’ claims that drug laws are meant to curb drug sales, four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as are arrested for selling them.

As a result of these arrests, on any given day at least 137,000 men and women are behind bars in the United States for drug possession, some 48,000 of them in state prisons and 89,000 in jails, most of the latter in pretrial detention. Each day, tens of thousands more are convicted, cycle through jails and prisons, and spend extended periods on probation and parole, often burdened with crippling debt from court-imposed fines and fees. Their criminal records lock them out of jobs, housing, education, welfare assistance, voting, and much more, and subject them to discrimination and stigma. The cost to them and to their families and communities, as well as to the taxpayer, is devastating. Those impacted are disproportionately communities of color and the poor.

This report lays bare the human costs of criminalizing personal drug use and possession in the US, focusing on four states: Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and New York. Drawing from over 365 interviews with people arrested and prosecuted for their drug use, attorneys, officials, activists, and family members, and extensive new analysis of national and state data, the report shows how criminalizing drug possession has caused dramatic and unnecessary harms in these states and around the country, both for individuals and for communities that are subject to discriminatory enforcement.

There are injustices and corresponding harms at every stage of the criminal process, harms that are all the more apparent when, as often happens, police, prosecutors, or judges respond to drug use as aggressively as the law allows. This report covers each stage of that process, beginning with searches, seizures, and the ways that drug possession arrests shape interactions with and perceptions of the police—including for the family members and friends of individuals who are arrested. We examine the aggressive tactics of many prosecutors, including charging people with felonies for tiny, sometimes even “trace” amounts of drugs, and detail how pretrial detention and long sentences combine to coerce the overwhelming majority of drug possession defendants to plead guilty, including, in some cases, individuals who later prove to be innocent.

The report also shows how probation and criminal justice debt often hang over people’s heads long after their conviction, sometimes making it impossible for them to move on or make ends meet. Finally, through many stories, we recount how harmful the long-term consequences of incarceration and a criminal record that follow a conviction for drug possession can be—separating parents from young children and excluding individuals and sometimes families from welfare assistance, public housing, voting, employment opportunities, and much more.

Families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take actions to prevent the potential harms of drug use and drug dependence. Yet the current model of criminalization does little to help people whose drug use has become problematic. Treatment for those who need and want it is often unavailable, and criminalization tends to drive people who use drugs underground, making it less likely that they will access care and more likely that they will engage in unsafe practices that make them vulnerable to disease and overdose.

While governments have a legitimate interest in preventing problematic drug use, the criminal law is not the solution. Criminalizing drug use simply has not worked as a matter of practice. Rates of drug use fluctuate, but they have not declined significantly since the “war on drugs” was declared more than four decades ago. The criminalization of drug use and possession is also inherently problematic because it represents a restriction on individual rights that is neither necessary nor proportionate to the goals it seeks to accomplish. It punishes an activity that does not directly harm others.

Instead, governments should expand public education programs that accurately describe the risks and potential harms of drug use, including the potential to cause drug dependence, and should increase access to voluntary, affordable, and evidence-based treatment for drug dependence and other medical and social services outside the court and prison system.

After decades of “tough on crime” policies, there is growing recognition in the US that governments need to undertake meaningful criminal justice reform and that the “war on drugs” has failed. This report shows that although taking on parts of the problem—such as police abuse, long sentences, and marijuana reclassification—is critical, it is not enough: Criminalization is simply the wrong response to drug use and needs to be rethought altogether.

Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union call on all states and the federal government to decriminalize the use and possession for personal use of all drugs and to focus instead on prevention and harm reduction. Until decriminalization has been achieved, we urge officials to take strong measures to minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of existing laws and policies. The costs of the status quo, as this report shows, are too great to bear.





US Supreme Court decision allows police to commit “reasonable mistakes” in detaining suspects

By Nick Barrickman
18 December 2014

In a blow to the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a police officer detaining someone under a mistaken reading of the law could cite having made a “reasonable mistake,” and thus avoid having the court disregard all evidence obtained under such circumstances, provided that a law was “‘so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view.”

The ruling was made regarding Heien v. North Carolina, a case in which an officer pulled over a driver while under the mistaken belief that the latter’s driving with a single inoperable brake light constituted a violation of state law. After consenting to a vehicle search which revealed narcotics, the defendant, Nicholas Heien, sought to have the evidence suppressed by invoking the Exclusionary Rule, a component of the Fourth Amendment.

In an act which demonstrates a high level of political calculation, the Supreme Court seized upon a lower court’s ruling which found the police officer’s search to be illegal in order to overturn the decision. “The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law,’” Chief Justice John G. Roberts stated in remarks supporting the majority’s opinion.

Expanding on the view of the majority, Justice Elena Kagan, an appointee of the Obama administration, stated “If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake.” Kagan stressed that such circumstances would be “exceedingly rare.”

Rather than being confined to traffic stops, the Court’s decision can be reasonably interpreted to give police the right to detain and search individuals under practically any circumstances.

In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor raised fears that this sort of conclusion would be drawn from the decision. “[The decision] means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down,” she said, adding that the concept of the law being “definite and knowable sits at the foundation of our legal system…” and that if officers are given leeway in such cases it may work to undermine the legitimacy of the court.

Reflecting this position, an amicus brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted that “The rule creates new and unjustified burdens on private citizens by sanctioning an expansive new category of traffic stops, together with the ‘physical and psychological intrusion’ such stops necessarily entail.” It added that the ruling ran the risk of “diminishing the public perception of law enforcement officials’ knowledge and authority.”

The court’s attack on the Fourth Amendment has been a continuous one. Other Supreme Court rulings of note have allowed for police to enter private residences without search warrants, citing “exigent circumstances” after the fact, as well as the proliferation and institutionalizing of “no-knock” raids, which involve militarily-armed SWAT team members forcing down doors on suspicions of illegal doing.

The decision occurs as mass protests have swept the country in recent weeks in opposition to police killings and the militarization of law enforcement and erosion of basic democratic rights.

In the aftermath of the August police killing of unarmed African American teenager Michael Brown in Missouri, protesters were confronted by police officers toting military-grade weapons and equipment and subjecting demonstrators to mass arrests for failing to obey arbitrary orders.

The decision to award police departments the power to detain drivers based upon what amounts to uninformed guesswork demonstrates the contempt that the US ruling class holds for the working population. Rather than reversing the process of police militarization and the undermining of fundamental democratic rights, the Democratic and Republican parties, the Obama Administration, and the Supreme Court all support the process in the name of “law and order.”

The Obama Administration, which sided with the Supreme Court’s decision, has been deeply involved in the process of militarization of police. In a review of the federal government’s programs which have been used to facilitate police militarization that was released early this month, the administration asserted that not only would such programs continue, but that they “have been valuable and have provided state and local law enforcement with needed assistance as they carry out their critical missions in helping to keep the American people safe.”

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ACLU drops appeal over ordinance banning marijuana growing

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed papers Wednesday to end its battle against a Livonia ordinance that bans marijuana growing and other operations that violate federal law.

The ACLU filed suit in Wayne County Circuit Court in December 2010 on behalf of two plaintiffs, asking that Livonia’s zoning ordinance amendment be thrown out. They claimed the ordinance violated the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act (MMMA).

Wayne County Circuit Judge Wendy Baxter ruled in Livonia’s favor July 22, 2011, upholding Livonia’s zoning ordinance and ruling the MMMA unconstitutional, as a violation of federal law. Baxter’s opinion also led to an injunction barring the two plaintiffs from violating Livonia’s ordinance.

The ACLU appealed the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals in August 2011. Now, that case has been dropped.

First to adopt ordinance

The City of Livonia was the first municipality in the state to adopt an ordinance that bans businesses, like medical marijuana dispensaries, that violate federal law. Since then, at least 20 other communities have enacted similar ordinances.

“Other states have found that medical marijuana growing operations and dispensaries attract crime,” said Livonia Mayor Jack Kirksey. “We are pleased that our effort to protect Livonia’s residents and businesses has been vindicated. It is apparent that other communities in Michigan have similar concerns about crime and believe this type of zoning ordinance is the right way to go.”

Kirksey added: “Despite claims by the ACLU, our approach was never aimed at preventing people with debilitating conditions from easing their pain. The City Council enacted this ordinance to prevent marijuana production or sales shops and other illegal operations, and the crime associated with them, from locating in our neighborhoods, across from schools, or next to the local pizza shop, gymnastics studio or hair salon.”

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette supported Livonia’ in the case, filing a brief in June 2011 to Livonia City Attorney Don Knapp said the ACLU recognizes it cannot risk losing again at the Court of Appeals because it would mean the end of the MMMA. “It is difficult to imagine anyone, especially the ACLU, dismissing an appeal that they believe they will win,” he said.

When the case was originally filed, the ACLU also named two Oakland County cities – Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills – as defendants in the Wayne County case because the plaintiffs, Robert and Linda Lott, lived in Birmingham and Linda Lott belonged to a private social club in Bloomfield Hills. Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills objected to their inclusion in the Wayne County case, accusing the ACLU of “forum shopping.” The Court of Appeals compelled the ACLU to pursue those defendants in Oakland County’s courts.

Birmingham case continuing

In November, the Oakland County Circuit Court also ruled against the ACLU, saying there was no need to strike down the Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills ordinances because the harm the Lotts claimed to fear was strictly hypothetical. The ACLU decided to take Birmingham’s portion of the case to the Court of Appeals, but did not file an appeal against Bloomfield Hills.

Linda Lott died Dec. 14. Nevertheless, Robert Lott and the ACLU continued the fight against Livonia and Birmingham, and filed motions to extend deadlines in the Livonia case in February and earlier this month. While the ACLU has dropped the case against Livonia, the case against Birmingham is apparently continuing.

The portion of Livonia’s zoning ordinance in question states that “Uses for enterprises or purposes that are contrary to federal, state or local laws or ordinances are prohibited.” The ACLU claimed this contradicted the MMMA because federal law prohibits activities which the MMMA permits.

Both Baxter’s decision and Livonia’s zoning ordinance are available at www.ci.livonia.mi.us .

The link for Baxter’s decision is https://www.ci.livonia.mi.us/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=aUNAA%2bVj6vU%3d&tabid=389 .
For Livonia’s zoning ordinance amendment, go to https://www.ci.livonia.mi.us/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=874AEShTGt0%3d&tabid=389 .