For the next month I will be focusing on prisoners’ issues, because I know that many prisoners’ families come to the CockleBur to keep up-to-date on legal developments affecting prisoners. So here is a roundup of the latest prisoner stories in the news.

Last week, the New York Times published an editorial entitled, “Recidivism’s High Cost and a Way to Cut It.” The editorial argued that the States would save millions of dollars if they could reduce the recidivism rate by only 10 percent. In California alone, a 10-percent reduction would save 233 million dollars. Contrary to some popular thought there are ways to reduce the recidivism rate, but it would take a concentrated effort beginning when prisoners start their sentences, not just when they end them.

A federal judge in Virginia denied a Muslim state prisoner’s claim that a prison policy forbidding beards violates his RUILPA and his First Amendment rights. The State had argued that the prisoner’s request to grow an 1/8th of an inch beard raised safety concerns. Those safety concerns included a prisoner’s ability to hide weapons in their beard and to change their appearance if they escaped.

Well, those seem like reasonable concerns, because when I was in prison I saw a lot of prisoners hiding shanks in their 1/8th inch beards and planning to escape by growing a beard. (And to think I was going to give sarcasm a rest this week.)  

In his ruling, the judge said he gives “due deference to the experience and expertise of prison jail administrators” in determining that the policy serves a compelling interest, especially since ” it is not clear than an inmate cannot change his appearance by shaving it, or identify himself as the member of a gang by growing it.”

This should be a good candidate for reversal by the Fourth Circuit.

Attorney General Eric Holder urged states to eliminate legal burdens on ex-convicts that do not imperil public safety. This is an important issue if we ever plan to reduce recidivism rates.

Last week, Adam Liptak at the New York Times highlighted several federal judges who are outraged about having to impose lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenders solely because a new more lenient law does not apply retroactively. An editorial from the New York Times calls for Congress to act in passing legislation that will remove the crack/cocaine disparity for all offenders.

Peter Moskos, a former policeman, has the great piece entitled In Defense of Flogging. The article addresses the morality of this country’s prison-industrial complex.

The most important case for prison conditions in the last decade, Schwarzenegger v. Plata, 09-1233, still has not been decided by the Supreme Court. I can only imagine how many pages of opinion are coming. Let’s just hope that justice prevails.

At Slate, Christopher Beam has an interesting piece on the recent history of prison escapes.

This is an old article from the Huffington Post that I just happened to find. It involves the federal prison at Pekin, Illinois, where I was incarcerated for a decade. A prisoner there, named Adam Montaya, spent several days in agony, repeatedly begging for medical assistance before dying from untreated cancer and HIV. During my time at Pekin, I routinely watched prisoners denied or delayed medical care when it was clear, to even a medical layman like me, that they had serious medical conditions. It even happened to me. I wrote about these issues in the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, in an article entitled, “A Sunny Deposition: How the In Forma Pauperis Provides an Avenue for Indigent Prisoners to Seek Depositions Without Accompanying Fees.” You can find the article here or here.