As Florence prison prepares for closing, comment section debate over prisoners’ rights mimics Supreme Court debate

Alexis Young
Correctional Officer Tracy Sisson works Condemned Row’s command post at the Special Management Unit (SMU) in Florence.MIKE FIALA/AFP via Getty Images

By Alexis Young - NewsBreak - Pinal County, AZ

In January, the Arizona Department of Corrections Rehabilitation and Reentry announced its newly awarded contract to long-time detention management partner, CoreCivic, growing the La Palma Correctional Center’s inmate population by almost 3,000 and closing Florence prison.

Upon the discovery of Corecivic’s new contract, the estimated hundreds of millions saved in tax dollars after closing, the ADCRR director’s federal court appearances, a KJZZ report investigating collusion among the private prison complex and Arizona lawmakers, and the increased inmate per day rate paid to CoreCivic, a debate about prisoner’s rights ensued.

Readers debated the validity and constitutionality of prisoners’ rights, echoing a debate that’s been on the Supreme Court’s bench since the '60s. The history of prisoners’ rights in the United States is categorized into three eras.

The Hands-Off Period

Though the final two periods come with several synonymous titles, sources from law encyclopedias to Wikipedia pages agree that the era until the 1960s was known as The Hands-Off Period. Those who do not support the constitutional rights of inmates share ideals the federal court once complacently condoned. According to Dr. Jack E. Call’s 1995 analysis, The Supreme Court and Prisoner’s Rights, this period marks the judicial government’s refusal to intervene on behalf of inmate rights — believing the responsibility was for executive and legislative branches of government.

One of the most common and earliest examples of the hands-off judicial approach was the 1871 case of Ruffin v. Commonwealth. Woody Ruffin, an inmate contracted to work on the railroad, was found guilty of murdering another railroad employee in Bath, Virginia. Ruffin was sent to Richmond, Virginia for trial though he requested the trial or a jury be brought from Bath.

Ruffin was hoping to cash in on section eight of the Virginia Declaration of Rights adopted almost a century prior.

“Section 8. That in all capital or criminal prosecutions a man has a right to demand the cause and nature of his accusation, to be confronted with the accusers and witnesses, to call for evidence in his favor, and to a speedy trial by an impartial jury of twelve men of his vicinage, without whose unanimous consent he cannot be found guilty; nor can he be compelled to give evidence against himself; that no man be deprived of his liberty except by the law of the land or the judgment of his peers.

Ruffin’s request appealed to the “men of his vicinage” portion of section eight. Yet, “the law of the land” and the “judgment of his peers” or more specifically Attorney J. Christian author of the case’s opinion said, “[Ruffin] has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the State.” Christian went on saying the bill of rights was for free men, no “convicted felons and men civilly dead.”
Readers discuss their opinions on prisoner’s rights.Fuster Cluck, guera63, Johnny Ripley

The Civil Rights Era

Over 200 years later — just ten years after the Civil Rights/Activist/Rights/Warren judicial era began—the 1974 Wolff v McDonnell case was a class-action lawsuit filed by Nebraska inmate Robert O. McDonnell. The First Amendment Encyclopedia recounts McDonnell’s complaints regarding violations to his constitutional rights, due process as well as ineffective in-house assistance programs and overzealous censorship of mail from attorneys.

Then Supreme Court Justice Bryon R. White wrote the 6-3 decision saying inmates are afforded certain rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, efficient law libraries in prison due to decisions from Johnson v. Avery(1969) and Younger v. Gilmore(1971) and the right to have legal advice via mail inspected(by officers) but not censored.

The Civil Rights judicial era was in tandem with the Civil Rights Movement. During this time several movements were getting a taste of the political freedoms cooking in our Constitution. One might say this judicial period was more likely to side with the hippies (one shouldn’t say that unless they are CLEARLY joking) or individuals who believe the courts have some level of responsibility to a detainee’s wellbeing both physically and constitutionally.
Readers discussing their opinions on inmates’ rights.T. Bone…….., Connie Simpson, AP_001772.aca8ca0aae6d4b868b2f5c6

The Deference Era

The activist period ended nine years after Richard Nixon made his June 18 declaration of war on drugs in 1971. The Retrenchment or Deference Era leads us from the '80s to today. Judicial deference occurs when federal courts leave statutes or Congressional regulations to the interpretation of the agency, according to Ballotpedia. Since the retrenchment period’s genesis, there have been several landmark cases denying inmates of constitutional rights they had minimal access to in the activist era.

In 1987’s O’lone v. Shabazz, the religious rights Justice White claimed inmates had was disproved. Shabazz wanted to be excused from facility-sanctioned work he did outside of the prison on Fridays so he wouldn’t miss Jumu’ah (Friday prayer in the Islamic faith). Shabazz was denied. Six years prior, Rhodes v. Chapman decided double bunking inmates in cells less than 65 sq. ft. does not violate the Eighth Amendenment’s cruel and unusual punishment clause.

May 2021, Cronkite News reported 1,200 grievances from inmates about mistreatment from prison officials. Immigration detainees at CoreCivic’s La Palma Correctional Center filed Eighth Amendment violations complaints after receiving inadequate personal protection equipment during quarantine. There’s footage of detainees peacefully protesting their lack of access to proper healthcare by lying down on the prison floor. They were met with pepper balls, pepper spray from prison officials. The Department of Homeland Security opened an investigation resulting in eight recommendations to improve the La Palma prison. The recommendations got pushback from Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as CoreCivic; they only agreed to three of the eight recommendations. This reinforced beliefs from the hands-off era that inmate rights are the executive branch's responsibility, not the prison’s or court’s.

The retrenchment period seems to have space for the tenets of each era. Whether Americans are under the impression that state prisons owe inmates nothing but the bare minimum, should absorb all costs (financial, medical, constitutional) associated with housing an individual for an extended amount of time or access on a case-by-case basis — there was a period when our judicial system thought and operated under the same beliefs.

NewsBreak has reached out to ICE and La Palma Correctional Center and awaits a response from each entity.

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I found an unexpected comfort and interest in journalism. From storytelling to holding the powerful accountable to the more technical parts of the job, most all of it interests me. I’m using that interest to ignite lights that will illuminate truth.

Phoenix, AZ

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