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PEAP Panel Highlights Value of Prison Reform Litigation

October 20, 2011

By Jenny Chung C’12

A panel event featuring attorneys Ashley Parrish and Margaret Winter, experts in the field of prison reform litigation, convened Wednesday, October 19 at Penn Law to address questions of constitutionality and social policy relevant to healthcare reform in state prison systems.

Jointly sponsored by the Law School’s Prison Education and Advocacy Project, International Human Rights Advocates and the Health Law and Policy Group, the panel drew a sizable audience of students interested in inmate healthcare reform and policy.

Winter, who currently serves as associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, highlighted the necessity of providing adequate medical and psychological treatment to inmates. “Often if general conditions are bad in a prison, you can probably guarantee that medical and mental healthcare will be deplorable,” Winter said.

She added that as “captives of the state,” prisoners are entirely reliant on the state for the “basic necessities of life.”

Demand for access to healthcare among the prison population is especially high, she explained, given that many inmates suffer from chronic diseases prevalent among the poor while others are afflicted with untreated psychological conditions.

The need for prison healthcare reform has become still more pressing, Winter noted, since the extension of prison sentences by the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. “We’re seeing a vast new geriatric population in prisons with needs that younger prisoners don’t have,” she elaborated. “It’s inevitable that people are going to suffer unnecessary deaths and permanent injuries if there isn’t appropriate healthcare.”

Parrish, a partner at the Washington, D.C. office of international law firm King & Spalding and a member of its national appellate and strategic counseling practice group, was involved with the landmark Coleman v. Wilson case, a class-action suit brought against the California Department of Corrections on behalf of mentally ill inmates. This enabled him to identify several critical failings within the California prison system: inadequate space, understaffing, and the absence of effective protocols for evaluating the health of inmates. 

While the Coleman case resulted in a series of court orders that brought marginal improvement to the prison system, Parrish said, California prisons saw sharp rises in population shortly afterward due to the passage of legislation revising the terms of parole and sentencing. The conditions that ensued, he recalled, were appalling.

“There were 200 prisoners held in a gym, with beds stacked three high, and one toilet for 57 prisoners,” he recounted.

According to Parrish, a special prejudge panel convened in 2006 determined that a prisoner release order was to be granted to reduce the number of inmates housed at each facility, a finding later affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Margaret Winter
Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project

To contextualize the “extraordinary” nature of the decision, Winter provided a brief history of prison reform advocacy in the U.S., introduced as recently as the 1970s. 

After a brief period of prison reform expansion, she said, in the 1990s the Supreme Court grew “increasingly hostile” to the possibility of federal intervention in state prison systems, thereby introducing greater difficulty to the securing of injunctions for the release of prisoners.

“Our jaws were dropping, because somehow a court was reaffirming some very basic principles that it had been sneering at for a couple of decades,” Winter recalled. “This decision… is the first really powerful ray of hope that things are changing now.”

Parrish framed the ruling within the ongoing debate concerning the degree of federal intervention permissible to ensure the efficacy of political processes at the state level. “The real problem isn’t that states are making bad political judgments—it’s that they’re not made to suffer the consequences,” he said. “What’s happening to the prison system is symptomatic of failings across a range of different areas.”

According to Alexandra Holson L’14, this year’s PEAP membership coordinator, Parrish and Winter were invited to speak on the basis of their “incredible qualifications” and experience collaborating with the Supreme Court and high-level organizations to improve prison conditions. 

“We invite students to go into the jails to teach prisoners,” as part of PEAP’s programming, Holson said, “but it’s often hard to show them the bigger perspective about what actually goes on because what they’re seeing is a reward program for inmates who have behaved well. They don’t see the other side of the spectrum—like housing or healthcare—so we wanted to plan programs that show another perspective and level of consideration for the populations they visit.”