Prisoner Rights Work

Our work with the Panthers in Carbondale had brought us into contact with prisoners at the nearby Marion Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. In 1972, there was a work stoppage at the prison which led to the segregation of over one hundred protesting prisoners. We filed a suit, Adams v. Carlson, which challenged this segregation, eventually winning the case on appeal, and the men were released from segregation in early 1974.

We fought against prison behavior modification units, later named “control units” both in the federal and the state systems. Our challenge to Stateville Prison’s Special Programs Unit (SPU) ultimately established the right to due process before placement in such control units. In the wake of the Adams decision, Marion authorities converted the segregation unit to a control unit, and we filed a second suit, Bono v. Saxbe, which challenged that unit, and which became another piece of protracted litigation as the Bureau of Prisons developed their draconian maxi-maxi penology and offered it as a brazen defense to their unconstitutional conduct.

During this time period, we also began to work with women in prison, particularly with the women at Dwight Correctional Center. Pat, Holly and several other women started the Women’s Prison Project, which taught weekly classes to the women at Dwight. In 1976, however, the Department of Corrections cracked down on the Project, barring the law class and locking Maxine Smith, an African American woman who was the only jailhouse lawyer at the prison, in indefinite segregation on the pretextual charge of possession of a camera. The Department offered to release Maxine if she would stop her jailhouse lawyer activities and relinquish her law library job, but she refused on principle. Peter, Pat and the Women’s Prison Project filed a complaint seeking her release and damages. Several years later, in 1978, the Seventh Circuit ordered her release from segregation, and several years after that, in June 1983, we obtained a $100,000 award in her favor from an all-white jury in Peoria.

In July, 1978, Pontiac Prison erupted, with three guards killed. The prison was placed on total deadlock, and lawyers were barred. Together with other lawyers we first filed a suit to regain entry into the prison, and then sought to end the deadlock. We obtained a preliminary injunction ending the deadlock and defended it on appeal, and then spent several months in early 1979 pressing contempt against the Department of Corrections for noncompliance with the injunction. As a result, the DOC ended the deadlock and we received a substantial attorney’s fee award for our work. During this time we also began to meet with prisoners who were targeted for indictment and began to plan their defense.

When 17 Pontiac prisoners were indicted for the murders of the three guards, Jeff and Michael, along with several other criminal defense lawyers, took a major role in coordinating the defense and adopting a strategy of maintaining unity among the defendants, working with the Pontiac Brothers Defense Committee, exposing the prison conditions, and putting the state on trial. In the first trial, the prosecution proceeded against ten of the defendants, including Jeff’s client, Joe Smith, but after a lengthy trial the jury acquitted all defendants on all counts. The state then dropped all remaining murder charges.

We also litigated to improve the abysmal medical care in prisons. In Green v. Carlson, we sued the federal Bureau of Prisons officials for the 1975 death of Joseph Jones in the Terre Haute Prison Hospital. Jones was the fourth Black prisoner to die at Terre Haute in eight months due to grossly inadequate medical care. The district court had dismissed the complaint, but the Supreme Court accepted the case and in early 1980, the entire Green team piled into a station wagon dubbed the Butz (for Butz v. Economu) Express and descended upon Washington and the Supreme Court. Michael argued the case, with the major issue being whether a prisoner’s cruel and unusual punishment claim for damages could be implied against federal officials under the Eighth Amendment. Later that year, the Supreme Court decided the case in our favor.

Another case that we litigated dealing with medical care in prison also ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, with a favorable decision for the plaintiffs. David Saxner and Alfred Cain, prisoners at Terre Haute, had protested the substandard medical care, which had caused the death of another prisoner, William Lowe, and had been “active in gathering information about Lowe’s death and about conditions at the prison hospital, and in passing that information to the press, Members of Congress, prison officials, and Saxner’s attorney.” Cleavinger v. Saxner, 474 U.S. 193, 194 (1985). In retaliation for the exposure of their misdeeds, the prison authorities punished Saxner and Cain by taking away their good time. We filed suit against members of the prison disciplinary commission and won a damages award from a jury. The prison appealed, but the Supreme Court affirmed the denial of absolute immunity to the prison officials, ruling that they could be liable in money damages.

Our prison work continued in the 1980s with litigation as well as work with Amnesty International, congressional committees, human rights organizations, the United Nations, and the various Marion committees. Some of the major issues which we dealt with were the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project from the prison, the imposition of a complete and permanent lockdown at Marion, and the opening of a new political prison for women in Lexington, Kentucky. We obtained injunctive relief and then a jury verdict against Marion officials for the banning of the Marion Prisoners Rights Project and subsequently helped obtain an injunction which prohibited the Bureau of Prisons from placing women into the High Security Unit at Lexington prison on the basis of their political beliefs and associations, an injunction which, unfortunately, was later overturned by the Court of appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

History by Section

Early Days
The Murder of Fred Hampton
Government Surveillance
Representing the Panthers in Downstate Illinois
Attica New York Prison Riots
The Fred Hampton Murder Trial
Prisoner Rights Work
Puerto Rican Independence Movement and the Puerto Rican Community
Fred Hampton Appeal
George Jones Street Files and False Imprisonment
Representing Demonstrators, Protestors, and Activists
Puerto Rico Work Continues
Police Brutality and Torture
Continuing to Represent Demonstrators and Activists
The Attica Prison Civil Case
Continuing Work in Solidarity With Puerto Rico
Fighting the Death Penalty
Sexual Abuse Litigation and Illegal Strip Search
Back to the Supreme Court
The 1996 Democratic Convention
Policy and Practice Cases
False Arrests and Convictions
Continuing to Defend Dissent
Continuing the Fight for Justice in the Chicago Police Torture Cases
Criminal Defense for Civil Rights Abuses
Jail Suicide
Opposing the Criminalization of the LGBTQ Community
People’s Law Office and The National Lawyers Guild