[Editor's Note: From time to time we come across articles, cases and links dealing with prisons and prison life in general.  Because much of what happens behind prison walls is hidden from the public view, we feel that there should be a place on the Internet where the public can learn about the prison system in America.  Thus, we will periodically add items of general interest to this section of our Web site with the hope that it can help to dispel some of the myths about the Law and the Lore of prison life.] 

Part A - Some General Observations about  Prisons In America

Justice Brennan once described the plight of prisoners with these compelling words: 

"Prisoners are persons whom most of us would rather not think about. Banished from everyday sight, they exist in a shadow world that only dimly enters our awareness. They are members of a 'total institution' that controls their daily existence in a way that few of us can imagine. '[P]rison is a complex of physical arrangements and of measures, all wholly governmental, all wholly performed by agents of government, which determine the total existence of certain human beings (except perhaps in the realm of the spirit, and inevitably there as well) from sundown to sundown, sleeping, walking, speaking, silent, working, playing, viewing, eating, voiding, reading, alone, with others. . . .' It is thus easy to think of prisoners as members of a separate netherworld, driven by its own demands, ordered by its own customs, ruled by those whose claim to power rests on raw necessity."  Justice William Brennan, dissenting in O'Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342, 354-55 (1987).

In the last decade, two brilliant decisions give chilling evidence that barbaric conditions still exist in the "netherworld" of prisons in America.  The first of those decisions was Judge Henderson's lengthy expose of the conditions that exist at Pelican Bay Prison in California, which he described in his decision reported at Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D.Cal. 1995).The second was Judge Justice's equally stirring expose of the prison system in Texas, which was reported at Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F.Supp.2d 855 (S.D.Tex. 1999).

In Madrid, Chief Judge Thelton Henderson of the Northern District of California described, in lurid detail, the conditions at the infamous Pelican Bay State Prison in California.  Without reading his entire 138 page decision, it is impossible to recapture the graphic descriptions of what really goes on at Pelican Bay.  However, to give an idea, Judge Henderson's findings of fact about the use of excessive force at pelican Bay illuminating.  

He catalogued five different types of excessive force as follows:  (1) Staff Assaults on Inmates; (2) Use of Fetal Restraints; (3) Cagings; (4) Cell Extractions; and (5) Lethal Force.  "Cagings" is the practice of confining naked inmates in outdoor holding cells during inclement weather.  The "cages" - where prisoners are sent for additional punishment - are about the size of telephone booths; they are constructed of weave mesh metal; and they have no protection from the weather.  But that's nothing compared with his findings on Lethal Force.  Judge Henderson concluded that "firearms have been used unnecessarily, and in some cases, recklessly" at Pelican Bay.  To support that conclusion he cited the fact that of three killings (not shootings - killings!) that were brought to his attention, two of the prisoners killed were not even the person at whom the shooting officer was aiming!  Of 20 other shootings he investigated, six of the inmates who were hit were "uninvolved bystanders".  [Guess all that target shooting practice really isn't very effective.]  

His description of "cell extractions" - or the forcible removal of inmates from cells - is another beauty.  Judge Henderson noted that these undeniably "violent maneuvers" involve the use of several weapons including 38 millimeter gas guns, "Tasers" (which incapacitates the inmates with a 40,000 volt electrical shock), short metal batons and mace.  Most cell extractions were accompanied by severe staff beatings. 

Judge Henderson explained that, in 1982, California had a total of 12 prisons, housing 31,000 prisoners. By 1998, California had a total of 33 prisons, housing 160,000 prisoners, at an annual budget of $4 billion.  (See, "California Examines Brutal, Deadly Prisons", The New York Times, Nov. 7, 1998, p. A-7).   Pelican Bay was built to house the State's most incorrigible prisoners; and although it only opened in 1989, Judge Henderson found, in Madrid, that conditions at Pelican Bay caused "senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery." 

Conditions like those found at Pelican Bay were so severe, and so unnoticed by the general public, that Sally Mann Romano wrote an extraordinarily revealing law review article, entitled , "If the SHU Fits: Cruel and Unusual Punishment at California's Pelican Bay State Prison,"   in the Emory Law Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 1996, which can be accessed by clicking here.  (The footnotes to that article can be accessed by clicking here.) 

If you are interested in reading about the conditions that exist in America's prisons  in the last decade of this enlightened 21st Century, we suggest that you read Ms. Romano's expose.

The Ruiz case was discussed in the 5/17/99 issue of Punch and Jurists. That decision, by Judge Justice of Texas, is a masterpiece of compelling logic and disturbing facts; and is one that should be read by everyone.  The decision stands out as a beacon in the raging fight over the controversial provisions of the Prison Litigation Reform Act which permit prison officials to terminate long-standing consent decrees that granted Federal district courts supervisory powers to correct constitutional violations in prisons.  

In his decision, Judge Justice concluded, after lengthy hearings, that although much had changed in the Texas prison system since he began his supervision, "The evidence before this court revealed a prison underworld in which rapes, beatings, and servitude are the currency of power" and he painted a picture of "a frenzied and frantic state of human despair and desperation."  He particularly noted that "the extreme deprivations and repressive conditions of confinement of Texas administrative segregation units . . . violate the Constitution of the United States prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment . . . [and] members of the plaintiff class still live under conditions allowing a substantial risk of physical and sexual abuse from other inmates, as well as malicious and sadistic use of force by correctional officers." 

Judge Justice is no stranger to the battle for justice in American prisons.  In 1996, Congressman Bill Archer (R-Tx) made the following statement on the floor of the House, just after the passage of one of the many forerunners to the Prison Litigation Reform Act:  ""I am very pleased to see this legislation is on its way to soon becoming law. When I was in the Texas Legislature, the Texas prison system was a model for all other prisons, with a excellent rate of rehabilitation and costing just $1.50 a day per prisoner. Since then, judges like Judge William Wayne Justice have been allowed to take over our prisons and order frivolous, unnecessary facilities for prisoners costing taxpayers millions of dollars. We must get the Federal Judiciary out of our state prison systems and return the power to the states where it belongs."  As the lawyer in the Ruiz case ruefully commented, it as if Congressman Archer "didn't sit through the same trial and hear the same evidence.

Judge Justice was also the defendant in a famous lawsuit brought by W.J. Estelle, Jr., the Director of the Texas Department of Corrections, entitled Estelle v. Justice, 426 U.S. 925 (1976)

Part B - Prison Links

Prison Links Directory

BOP Inmate Locator

Map of Bureau of Prisons' Facilities by Region

Individual State Prison Statutes

Prison Handbooks:

Federal Prison Guidebook - 2002 Edition, a 350-page manual that contains comprehensive descriptions of every federal prison facility in the United States. This book, written by Alan Ellis, Esq., includes information on boot camps, drug programs, education, vocational training, apprenticeship programs, UNICOR, counseling, rehabilitation, health and religious services, libraries, smoking, commissary, fitness and recreation opportunities, telephones and inmate mail. The 2002 Edition also features practice tips, nearby lodging accommodations and an analysis of the BOP's new Security Designation and Custody Classification Manual.

Jailhouse Lawyers Manual (4th Edition) which is published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, Box B-25, Columbia University School of Law, 435 West 116th St., New York, NY 10027.   This book covers, among many other things, civil rights actions under 42 U.S.C. 1983, tort suits, Bivens actions, grievance procedures, federal hocus pocus, medical appeals, and direct appeals.

Federal Criminal Defendant's Handbook - "Negotiating the Long Lonely Road from Arrest to Prison to Freedom" by Douglas J. Hill, a former attorney who experienced the prison system. This book is published by Kensington Publishers and can be purchased over the Internet for approximately $50.

Federal Cure (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants Federal Prison Chapter) - a non-profit organization that deals solely with issues faced by Federal inmates and their families. In addition to the Web site it maintains at, it publishes a worthwhile newsletter that keeps one abreast of what is happening in the Federal prison scene.


"Freed From Prison, but Still Paying a Penalty: Ex-Convicts Face Many Sanctions," by Fox Butterfield, The New York Times, December 29, 2002.

"What's Worse Than Solitary Confinement? Just Taste This," by Matthew Purdy, The New York Times, August 4, 2002.

The Prison Paradox - Newsweek Magazine Cover Story, Nov. 9, 2000.  "While America puts more and more young blacks and Hispanics in jail, the neighborhoods they leave behind grow even more unstable.  Inside the tangled culture of the Prison Generation - and what can be done to reclaim lost lives."

Amnesty International's Report on Torture and Abuse of Prisoners - from its "Rights for All Report".  Read also some of the press clippings which describe how the U.N.'s Committee Against Torture had publically rebuked the United States over brutality in American prisons and called for an end to chain gangs and the use of electro-shock belts for restraining inmates.

Amnesty International's Report, dated June 8, 1999, entitled "The Stun Belt - Cranking Up the Cruelty - Known as America's "Voice of the Imprisoned," this site is dedicated to prisoners and their families and contains lots of interesting links.

The Atlantic Monthly series of articles about The Prison-Industrial Complex in America

San Francisco Chronicle April 9, 2000 Feature: "A Question of Control" - an article about the increasing use of isolation of prisoners  - "an unjustifiable form of punishment."

The Houston Press January 22,1998 Feature: "Critical Diagnosis - If you think your HMO is bad, check our what Texas has created for its prison inmates."

The Growth of Prison Labor - a report from the New York Times, March 19, 2000

Women in Prison, a series of articles written by Joe Riegert for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

The Sentencing Project Report entitled "Losing the Vote:  The Impact of Felon Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States"

Her Majesty's Prison Service, a weirdly sanitary and deeply disturbing guide to the British incarceration system.

Cornell Law School's collection of Prisons' and Prisoners' Rights Legal Materials

The American Civil Liberties Union collection of Prisoners' Rights Articles and Sites

Habeas Corpus and Prison Litigation Law Update - 1996 - Prepared by the Federal Judicial Center

Resource Guide for Managing Prisoner Civil Rights Litigation - 1996 - Prepared by the Federal Judicial Center (172 pages - PDF format)

Copyright 1996-2004 by Punch and Jurists, Ltd., P.O. Box 11, Washington Bridge Station, New York, N.Y. 10033. All rights reserved.  For more information about, email or call our offices at (212) 781-8685.