About six years ago, lawyers at North Carolina’s Prisoner Legal Services office began noticing a pattern: Many of the inmates who were writing them from Central Prison were claiming that officers had viciously beaten them in hallways that weren’t monitored by video cameras.
If not for the lawsuit that the attorneys subsequently filed, inmates at the Raleigh prison would have less protection from officer brutality today. The state agreed, as part of a settlement, to install video cameras throughout Unit One, the solitary confinement unit where many of the assaults took place.
Today, though, when Prisoner Legal Services receives such complaints, the office usually responds differently. It sends inmates letters informing them how they can file their own lawsuits. That’s because hefty state budget cuts have sharply curtailed the office’s ability to investigate or file lawsuits when inmates complain about prison conditions.
“We just don’t have the same ability to know what is going on,” said Mary Pollard, the office’s director.
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For 35 years, the publicly funded office advocated for N.C. prisoners who sought to fight brutality by officers, sexual assaults and an array of other constitutional violations inside prisons.
These prisoners have no one to go to.
Elizabeth Forbes, director of NC Cure, a criminal justice reform group.
But in fiscal year 2014, the state legislature cut 30 percent of the office’s funding – $900,000. The office lost about a third of its staff.
As a result, the office is “severely restrained” in its ability to investigate allegations about inhumane conditions and illegal behavior inside prisons, Pollard says.
‘No one to go to’
PLS once investigated hundreds of complaints about prison conditions each year, and sued on behalf of inmates in the most egregious cases. Among those they’ve represented: an inmate who offered proof that he’d been sexually assaulted by an officer, and a mentally ill prisoner who contended the state violated his constitutional rights by holding him in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
Recently, though, PLS didn’t have the money to sue on behalf of an inmate who lost toes because he had swollen feet and wasn’t provided the orthopedic shoes he needed, according to David Strauss, a former attorney for PLS.
Elizabeth Forbes, who heads a criminal justice reform group called N.C. Cure, said the cutbacks have effectively left many inmates with no legal recourse. That’s because inmates who file grievances to complain about prison conditions almost never win their cases, she said.
“These prisoners have no one to go to,” Forbes said.
‘A secret world’
PLS was established in 1979. About 10 years later, North Carolina began contracting with the office, as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that required states to provide prisoners meaningful access to the courts.
The high court’s decision settled a case which began when N.C. inmates sued the state Department of Corrections, alleging that their constitutional rights were violated because most prisons didn’t have law libraries. Most state prisons still don’t have law libraries today.
Today, the office continues to advocate for inmates who contend they were wrongly convicted.
But because PLS can no longer do much to investigate prison conditions, the state’s prison officials are largely shielded from scrutiny, inmate advocates say. Jennifer Blue, a staff attorney for the office, described the state’s prisons as “a secret world.”
“No one is allowed in there,” Blue said. “Who else is going to monitor that?”
In the years since the funding for PLS was slashed, Forbes says she has seen a surge in the number of inmates complaining about brutality, medical neglect and abuse of power by staff.
Said Pollard: “I think it’s important that there be some external watchdog to ensure the prisons are safe and humane.”