Prison Justice League appeal scheduled for oral argument

An appeal filed by DLM attorney Brian McGiverin on behalf of the Prison Justice League (a membership-based  organization of people incarcerated in Texas prisons) has been set for oral argument before the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, LA during the week of June 5, 2017. That is good news for PJL.

The underlying lawsuit alleged the officers of Texas’s Estelle Unit have a widespread practice of using excessive force on inmates:

PJL is a membership-based non-profit organization. Its members include over 700 TDCJ inmates, over 100 of whom are located in Estelle Unit, which has a capacity to hold 3,148 inmate overall. In the Texas prison system, inmate demographics sometimes vary from unit to unit. The Estelle Unit’s population is older and sicker than at most units – it is colloquially known as a “medical unit.” About a third of Estelle Unit inmates are over age 50. It is one of TDCJ’s main facilities for blind and deaf inmates and is classified as a Type II geriatric facility. It also temporarily houses inmates from other prisons who need physical therapy, respiratory therapy, or dialysis.

The prison is not run the way it should be. Officers walking the halls of the Estelle Unit routinely exercise unbridled discretion to use physical force on inmates that is unnecessary to maintain discipline on the unit – striking them, twisting arms, slamming them into walls, or throwing them to the ground. Officers at the Estelle Unit use force as punishment and display open contempt for policies telling them to do otherwise. The complaint included specific examples.

The majority of PJL members at the Estelle Unit have been assaulted by officers. Many have also witnessed officers assault other inmates. Many of these men use walkers for mobility purposes, report to dialysis multiple times a week, suffer from diabetes, or have visual or hearing impairments. The complaint included specific examples. Virtually all PJL members at the Estelle Unit very credibly fear being assaulted by an officer in the future. They report feeling unsafe in areas they cannot avoid, such as the central hallway connecting the wings of the prison, and in the chow hall where they are served meals. Many report they routinely skip one or more meals a day to minimize their contact with officers and thus the likelihood of being assaulted.

The warden is aware her staff routinely uses excessive force. Inmates in the Estelle Unit file hundreds of grievances every month, which are reviewed and signed by the warden. Inmates complaining of excessive force use grievances to describe attacks by officers and the identity the officers who attacked them. The warden, however, has not endeavored to stop the identified officers from using excessive force. With very few exceptions, grievances are returned with boilerplate rejection messages, such as: “Accused officer denies claim. No further action warranted.”

The warden was also alerted to officers’ pervasive excessive force by their written “use of force reports.” The warden has read reports documenting uses of force that a reader would understand were clearly excessive. Finally, the warden was also put on notice by her personal observations. The warden is known for walking the halls of the unit, and witnessed excessive force in full view of the hallways.

But the warden has not taken reasonable steps to stamp out the culture of violence among her staff. The warden has the ability to discourage wrongdoing by simply punishing officers who deserve to be punished. She can suspend them, demote them, or fire them. Those are the tools a warden uses to punish and deter staff from all sorts of rule breaking, from the mundane to the critical. And yet, although she is aware of the need to punish officers for excessive force, she prefers not to. As a result, an atmosphere of fear hangs over inmates, especially the elderly and disabled, in a prison where the people meant to protect them have become their main predators.