A decade of litigation a Southern ‘Devil’s Island.’
Reviewed by Laughlin McDonald
Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 17-19
Reform and Regret by Larry W. Yackle (New York: Oxford University Press. 1989. 322 pp.).
Reform and Regret, by Larry W. Yackle, is an engrossing, carefully written story of two federal lawsuits, Pugh v. Locke and James v. Wallace, filed in 1974 to reform the Alabama prison system. The need for reform was great.
As Yackle describes it, most inmates were warehoused in large, unsupervised dormitories where the strong preyed on the weak. None of the state’s institutions met basic public health standards or the state’s fire safety code. Medical care was grossly inadequate. Inmates were poorly fed, denied adequate exercise and reasonable opportunities to visit with their families, and there were few educational and vocational programs.
The disciplinary unit within Draper Prison epitomized the worst of the system. Inmates in the doghouse, as the disciplinary unit was called, had no beds, no lights, no toilets, no running water, and no reading material. They were fed once a day and allowed to shower only once every eleven days. They were never released for exercise. Each punishment cell was only thirty-two square feet in area–the size of a sheet of plywood. Despite that, as many as six men were crammed into a single cell, for weeks at a time.
The conditions at Draper were not unique. Severe overcrowding was routine throughout the system, as was violence. Rapes and beating were common. There was no system of classification to separate the violent from the nonviolent inmates, and there was a shortage of guards. At Fountain, two officers supervised some 1,000 prisoners. The number of guards was reduced at night with the predictable result that those on duty, for their own safety, never ventured into the dormitories after dark.
“Discipline” was often maintained by the inmates themselves. Prisoners, called “strikers,” supervised inmates on work details and enforced order with hoe handles, broomsticks, and homemade knives. Other prisoners, called “flunkies,” patrolled the dormitories at night and were responsible for breaking up fights. It is not surprising that inmates seemed always heavily armed. According to Yackle, prisoners felt it was better to risk being caught with a weapon by a guard than to chance being caught without one by another inmate.
An Alabama newspaper referred to the state’s prison system as a “Devil’s Island.” Robert Sarver, a former director of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, and an expert witness in the lawsuits, gave an equally damning assessment. Prisons were “very dirty and unbelievably overcrowded.” Prisoners lived in a “veritable jungle,” and on food he could not “attempt” to eat himself. Inmates were like “caged animals” and lived a “demoralizing, debasing, degrading and ultimately destroying existence.”
The plaintiffs in Pugh and James were inmates who filed their initial complaints pro so, or representing themselves. Jerry Lee Pugh, a 27-year old white male, had been severely beaten during a race riot at Fountain in 1973 and charged that prison officials had failed to afford him adequate protection. Worley James was an eighty-year-old black man who spent more than a quarter-century behind bars. He claimed that prison officials had failed to provide him with adequate medical care and to rehabilitate him while he was in custody.
Fortunately for Pugh and James, their cases were assigned to Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. in Montgomery, one of the brightest and most activist judges in the federal judiciary. Judge Johnson took the complaints seriously and quickly appointed two local lawyers to represent the plaintiffs. The lawyers in turn agreed to coordinate their efforts and broadened the suits into class actions challenging the operation of the prison system as a whole. They also enlisted the aid of several civil rights organizations–the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Civil Liberties Union of Alabama and the National Prison Project. As a result of this series of events, the pro se complaints of two obscure Alabama inmates were transformed into major public interest litigation.
The plaintiffs made three related, but progressively more ambitious, arguments. First, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment is violated when prison officials maintain conditions that produce a pattern of violence against individual inmates. Second, inmates have a right to rehabilitation, and the maintenance by prison officials of conditions which frustrate that right or cause deterioration is also cruel and unusual punishment. Third, reliance on long-term incarceration with limited parole opportunities in large, secure, rural prisons is itself a violation of the Eighth Amendment. This last claim was clearly the most radical, for it was nothing less than an attack on the traditional American system of incarcerating people for the commission of crimes.
The cases went to trial in the summer of 1975. After six days of devastating testimony, the state conceded that its prison system was in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Judge Johnson ordered certain immediate reforms, such as closing the doghouse at Draper, and issued a full opinion in January 1976. He ruled that the totality of conditions in the prisons constituted cruel and unusual punishment. He also accepted the first two theories of unconstitutionality put forward by the plaintiffs: prison officials had failed in their “duty to provide inmates reasonable protection from constant threat of violence,” and “prison conditions were so debilitating that they necessarily deprive inmates of any opportunity to rehabilitate themselves, or even to maintain skills already possessed.” He declined, however, to rule that the Alabama prison system itself was a violation of the constitution.
The court ordered sweeping changes to bring the system up to constitutional standards. The population of each facility was restricted to “design capacity.” The state was held to the minimum standards established by the U.S. Public Health Service and was ordered to establish a plan for the classification of all prisoners, including identifying and segregating violent inmates. At least one guard had to be stationed inside and one outside each dormitory at all times.
The prison system was required to hire new guards and reduce “the racial and cultural disparity” between the staff and the inmate population. Prisoners had to be given a “bed off the floor” and a minimum of 60 square feet of living space, three square meals a day, “meaningful” jobs and a chance to enroll in basic education courses and vocational training programs.
What followed were years of legal wrangling and foot dragging by the state, which Yackle describes in exquisite detail. There were appeals, modifications of decrees, the appointment of monitors, and numerous compliance hearings. Implementation became so problematical that the court placed the entire prison system in receivership in 1979.
Judge Johnson, who moved to the Eleventh U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals, was replaced on the case by Robert Varner, and lawyers, all of whom exceptionally able and dedicated, shuffled in and out of the litigation as it proceeded through its permutations.
The legal maneuvering was accompanied on the political side by fingerpointing and grandstanding by state officials upon whom fell the responsibility of implementing the federal court order. Prison administrators accused the legislature of not appropriating enough money to make needed changes, while the legislature accused prison officials of being inefficient and wasteful. Governor George Wallace, who had castigated the judiciary during the battle over desegregation in the 1960s, charged that “ [sic] thugs and federal judges had “just about taken over society.”
By November 1984, however, as a result of judicial cajoling and coercion, including the actual release of prisoners from overcrowded facilities, enough progress had been made to allow the plaintiffs to enter into an agreement dismissing litigation, subject to being reopened in the event of backsliding by the state. Judge Varner signed the agreement into law and the prison litigation came to an end.
Yackle surveyed the prison system two years later and assessed the extent of reform. Four new prisons and a variety of community facilities had been built which significantly relieved overcrowding. Prison staff had doubled and many of the new correctional officers were black. A system-wide classification system was in operation, and there were greater opportunities to participate in work release and educational programs. The level of violence had dropped substantially. Medical and mental health care were much improved and disciplinary cells were equipped with bunks, mattresses, toilets, and electric lights.
To be sure, the reform was far from complete or adequate, and the cost of even limited reformation had been eleven years of frustrating, bitter litigation. But these are not Yackle’s principal regrets. Rather, they are that “something fundamental had not changed; men and women were still kept in cages, and long enough to ensure that they could never again function as ordinary citizens.”
Regrets, of course, are a function of expectation and the possible. It was probably unrealistic to expect a judge, even one as sensitive to constitutional claims as Frank Johnson, to invalidate the prison system itself. The author might have enhanced our sense of lost opportunities, however, by spelling out in more detail alternatives to the routine use of long-term confinement. There may be better ways for society to deal with people who commit crimes, but Yackle does not tell us what they are. Surely one alternative, and it has nothing whatever to do with penology, is the development of a society that does not breed crime, a society in which those who need decent jobs, housing, and educational opportunities can get them.
Laughlin McDonald is director of the Southern Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union and a lawyer who has himself been actively involved in numerous cases involving prisons, noting rights and civil rights.