Sunday, November 22, 2015

Organizing Inside: Prison Justice League building prisoner base for litigation, advocacy

Erica Gammill, Prison Justice League
Recently, Grits reconnected with Erica Gammill, a long-time Texas criminal-justice reformer who's doing some interesting work organizing prisoners inside Texas state prisons. She's now Director of the Prison Justice League, a membership organization whose 1,000+ members are all incarcerated Texas prisoners. That number would be pretty good for some free-world organizations; for an all-prisoner group, it's downright impressive.

A lot of the Prison Justice League's organizing work and litigation activity has centered around the Estelle Unit, where they're engaged in several lawsuits (and about which they produced this report last year on excessive force at the unit). But they have members at nearly all of Texas' 109 prison units. Grits found the whole project fascinating, so I asked Erica to come tell me, and you, a little more about the group, what they're doing, and what it's like trying to organize prisoners. You can listen to the interview here:

Or, find a transcript of our conversation below the jump.

11.20.15 Interview with Erica Gammill, Director, Prison Justice League

Scott Henson:    Hello, this is Scott Henson with a Grits for Breakfast podcast [recorded] on November 20, 2015.  I’m here with Erica Gammill from the Texas Prison Justice League.  Hi, Erica.  Thanks for joining me today.

Erica Gammill:    Thank you for having me.

SH:    Erica has worked all over the Texas criminal justice reform movement.  She came here to go to St. Edward’s University in Austin, and then has worked for the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, she’s done union organizing, and then ultimately helped start the Prison Justice League, when?  When did this start?

EG:    We were founded in 2013.

SH:    2013.  So, I’m really glad you could join us today.  Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the Prison Justice League?

EG:    Sure, be happy to.  So, as I said, Scott, the Prison Justice League was founded in 2013.  It was founded originally by myself and some fellow advocates including long time civil rights attorney, or maybe not so long time, but civil rights attorney Brian McGiverin, and then fellow advocate Jorge Renaud who formerly worked for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

SH:    He’s an old friend of mine.

EG:    We came together in early 2013 to talk about starting a new organization that would be a little bit different than some of the other groups in Texas, mostly in that it would be a membership organization made up of folks who were actually in Texas prisons.  They would join our organization and we would provide them with possible legal representation on civil rights complaints they had while they were in prison.

SH:    And that’s why I wanted you to come talk to me today because that’s such a cool project and you all have organized more members inside prison than some groups have organized outside prison. which is just amazing and wonderful.  So, tell me what that’s like.  How do you organize inside prison?

EG:    It’s very hard.  Organizing outside is very hard in communities, but we’ve been fortunate in that people who are in prison and not just in prison, but their family members, their loved ones on the outside, are interested in what we’re doing.  And so we started with an idea, which was to find better ways to litigate complaints about civil rights abuses in prisons and we needed people to join our organization so that they could serve as plaintiffs in our lawsuits and we could get more information about what was actually going on behind prison walls.  We started with a very small group.  We took a random sample of people who had written the Texas Civil Rights Project.  They were our fiscal sponsor during our formation.

SH:    Okay.

EG:    And we got almost every letter back from folks we had written to who were interested in joining and so they sent back their membership forms. and from there it’s kind of spread like wild fire.  We have a thousand members now.  Our members are represented at almost every prison in Texas.

SH:    Which is what?  109 units now?

EG:    109, yes, exactly.  And we have . . .

SH:    That’s amazing.

EG:    It is.  It is.  And we have members at almost every one.  We do have higher concentrations of members at units where there is active litigation going on, but again it’s mostly by word of mouth now.  And now that we’ve become fairly more established, folks behind bars know who we are, know what we’re about, and are interested in joining. 

SH:    Good.  Well when I first saw it, it seemed like just an incredibly clever way to basically generate a class for a class action type litigation.  I mean, there are so many issues that affect many, many prisoners not just one, and you need a group that represents them.  Is that sort of the idea?

EG:    Yes, it is.  I think you hit the nail on the head there, Scott.  You’re very astute.  But yes, we took that into consideration.  That was part of our long-term strategy as an organization and I’m happy to say that that’s something that seems to be working out well for us. 

SH:    So, tell us about your litigation.  You’re relatively new.  It has to all still be ongoing.

EG:    It is.  It is.

SH:    So . . .

EG:    Currently, we have three cases in the Southern District, federal court.  The Houston Division specifically.  They all have to do with one specific unit in Huntsville called the Estelle Unit.  Listeners may be familiar with a report we released earlier this year about some of the conditions at that particular unit. 

SH:    I’ll link to it in the post as well.
EG:    Perfect.  Thank you.  It just details an investigation we did about conditions there and in particular some excessive uses of force against folks who are elderly and people with disabilities.  And so we have three active cases out of that unit.  One dealing with excessive use of force, as I mentioned.  One dealing with a sexual assault and then one complaint that talks about ADA compliance or in this case ADA non-compliance at that unit.

SH:    So, the sexual assault case is this under the federal PREA standards?  Is that . . .

EG:    It is.

SH:    Wow.  So, y'all are litigating on PREA cases?   Or a PREA case?

EG:    Well ... yes.  So, the PREA stuff we take that very seriously and we do get numerous complaints about, you know, PREA standards not being fully implemented and/or, you know, complaints of sexual assault not being taken seriously.  And so, of course, it’s a fairly high standard [to obtain relief under PREA]. There are also some other components, like failure to protect is another issue that we’re working on as it relates to this case.  So, we’re also, and I’ll talk about this later, but we’re also looking at cases of sexual assault and high prevalence of sexual assaults in a DOJ complaint that we’ll be filing in just a few weeks.

SH:    Good.  So, the next thing I wanted to ask you about is a program that you’re going to launch very soon called Prison Legal Connection.  Tell us about that.

EG:    Yeah.  So, part of our legal advocacy program, as part of it, we’ve developed a new program which we’re about to launch here in just a few weeks called the Prison Legal Connection and it really has started as a result of a need expressed by our members.  As I said, we have 1,000 members across the state many of whom are surprisingly excellent jailhouse lawyers.  These are folks who are representing themselves in a court of law fighting conditions of confinement. usually, but some other cases as well, and who are pretty good at filing complaints, but lack resources - whether they be, you know, legal research or particular texts in the law library, most of the TDCJ unit law libraries are really terrible – but who can’t get past summary judgment because of some procedural obstacle that with some help they could possibly get past and have success in their legal claim. 

And so, as part of that, we decided to form a new group called PLC—Prison Legal Connection—that brings together jailhouse lawyers who are fighting their cases on the inside behind prison walls and pair them up with a legal advocate on the outside, whether that’s a lawyer, a law student, a paralegal, or someone else who is interested in helping them with their case support.  And so that person on the outside works with the jailhouse lawyer to do legal research, case support, legal writing, printing documents and this kind of thing to assist in an assisted self-representation model of legal service. 

SH:    That’s really amazing.  So, you’re . . . Are you working basically with the writ writers. I guess ...

EG:    Exactly.

SH:    Within the unit.  And are you actually in touch with them there and like, have a list and know who they are?  That’s . . .

EG:    Yes.

SH:    That is an amazing resource to have gotten to that level of organizing. 

EG:    Yes.

SH:    Congratulations.

EG:    Thank you.

SH:    So, it sounds like we’re talking about civil suits, but you’re also doing habeas corpus?  You’re doing post-conviction as well?

EG:    That’s a good question.  So, we originally were looking to help jailhouse lawyers, these “writ writers” as you call them and it’s a great title because that’s what they are, with their civil cases whether it has to do with conditions of confinement or other civil matters that affect them while they’re in prison.  But when we got our applications back from these folks, overwhelmingly they are needing post-conviction relief and assistance.  So, they are exactly looking for help with their habeas claims, and we weren’t necessarily prepared for that, but because we are a membership organization we want to be as an effective organization for our members as possible.  We know that we do have to start looking at that and so we are internally talking about making that available as well.

SH:    All right.  And finally you had mentioned that you had a Department of Justice complaint that you’re preparing on health care topics?

EG:    Mm-hmm.

SH:    And prison health care has been just a mess in recent years.  They slashed it in 2011, the budget, and really still haven’t completely brought it back up to snuff.  This last session they did put back in nine figures worth of money, but it was below what they needed to reach [inflation-adjusted] 2011 levels even.  So, tell us about your DOJ complaint and what you’re complaining about and what you hope to accomplish?

EG:    Well you’re absolutely right about the condition of medical care in Texas prisons.  I don’t remember who said it, but we’ve been right on the line of providing unconstitutional care for about oh, probably 10 years now.  You know, 9 or 10 years, and we’re still there.  You’re right, the funding is significantly lower than it needs to be.

SH:    Right.

EG:    The [level of] care is lower than it needs to be.  There are other obstacles that are at play there. 

SH:    And that’s not just the advocate saying that.  That’s UTMB. 

EG:    Exactly.

SH:    The people managing the prison health care system show up at the legislature and tell them, "we are on the cusp of providing unconstitutional care."

EG:    Yes.

SH:    And then after they told them that the legislature cut their money.

EG:    Yep.

SH:    And no one has ever said, "we are not providing unconstitutional care," but the implication is certainly there if you were on the cusp and then they slashed your funds.

EG:    Exactly right.  Exactly right.  This is coming from the Correctional Management Health Care Committee, from UTMB itself, Dr. Linthicum and others not just, you know, advocates for prisoners.  But you’re right, I think, we’re on the cusp or perhaps beyond it at this point and so the DOJ complaint is primarily requesting the DOJ to come investigate conditions of medical care in Texas prisons and it’s a lengthy complaint.  It also includes some other information and requests around the prevalence of sexual assault and the non-implementation or full implementation of PREA standards and also on the excessive use of force by prison staff and so . . . 

But the medical care is probably our chief complaint from our members and has been for as long as I’ve been writing to prisoners. which is almost 10 years now.  The medical care is tragically poor and is deadly.  And so our DOJ complaint is a lengthy request for the DOJ with data, with research, with anecdotal research as well, stories from our members, their family members, and loved ones asking the DOJ to investigate like they’ve done in other places.  You know, they’ve investigated other prison systems and so we’re asking them to do that on behalf of the 150+ prisoners who are facing very poor health care. 

SH:    All right, well is there anything else you wanted to chat about while I have you?

EG:    I could chat all day really, but I just want to thank you for allowing me to come on and talk about these really important things.  This has been such a great conversation. 

SH:    It’s my privilege to have you.  Thank you very much.

EG:    Thank you, Scott.

Transcribed by: Edited for grammar and clarity by Scott Henson.


CS McClellan/Catana said...

I'd be very interested to know whether they have any members from Polunsky's death row. Abuses are rampant there, too.


Does the intervention of the Prison Justice League keep a writ writer from being named a vexatious litigant? Does it bypass the "Spears" hearing process? Hopefully, the credibility of the 1983 actions have risen over the last few years.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, since I personally can't nominate Ms./Mrs. Erica Gammill for a PNG of Texas - Public Hero Award, I'm reaching out to you in hopes that (when you get some spare time), you'd consider doing the honor. (Here would be just fine.)

Btw, awesome interview. I hope you'll invite her back for follow-ups, updates and heads-up for any planned fundraising events. I've been aware of her Good Works for quite sometime now and honestly believe that she is in 'it' for the benefit of 'all' humans and apparently, for the long haul. When someone does something on this level: it leads me to campaigning on their behalf, not only to be publicly recognized for their sacrifices and beyond, sometimes, for post(s) in the system where it can be reformed from within. Not that she doesn't have enough on her reformation plate, I offer the following. *Please encourage her to join ranks with the Exoneration Review Commission. I'd like to unite her with another Texas sized hero, long-time GFB reader Mrs. Audrey White, in hopes of her assisting in bringing this 'project' to the female and juvenile units by someone that's been there and knows how the Units hide systemic wrongs from both the casual & chronic visitors.

SO FAQ said...

I am on this mailing list and so should you. This is something long over due.

TX-CURE said...

Yes, long overdue. We are impressed and grateful for Ms Gammill's organization, and will do all we can to assist her. Tx-CURE

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@TRG, so nominated. And regarding fundraising, I'm sure PJL won't mind if you didn't wait for an event and went here to support them now. You can also sign up for their newsletter and Twitter feeds on that page.

Anonymous said...

Is she offering more than just legal services?