A Message from the Executive Director of PLS

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I would share a speech my mom gave last week. She gave this speech at a fundraiser for her organization, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York. For an understanding of what PLS does, here is a blurb from their website:

Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) was founded in 1976 under the sponsorship of the New York State Bar Association in response to the devastating 1971 Attica riot. The PLS founders sought to address one of the major reasons for the riot – the lack of prisoners’ access to the courts and the almost complete absence of attorneys to present their complaints in a legal forum. Established initially through a federal grant, PLS has been funded almost exclusively by the State of New York during the past 40 years.

My mom has spent the majority of her life fighting for the rights of prisoners. This is not an easy fight. It’s heartbreaking, it’s exhausting, and it’s often a thankless career. For many people it is also inherently very political. I often hesitate from diving into the specifics of my mom’s job with my friends or coworkers, not for lack of pride, but in order to avoid politics. My views, however, changed after listening to people speak at the fundraiser. I learned that PLS’ board of directors is split in half across parties. This is a bipartisan issue. This was an eye opener for me. Educated individuals, no matter which party they align with, can see that we must treat all people with a certain level of civility and respect. My mom has known this from a very young age and has fought for this very notion since far before I was born. I am beyond proud to have a mother with such conviction, poise, and empathy. Here is her speech from Wednesday:

We invited you all here to tell you about the work PLS does. I have worked at PLS for over 30 years and served as the Executive Director since 2008.

For those of you who don’t know, PLS was founded in 1976, following the Attica uprising, to represent indigent incarcerated individuals in NYS prisons on issues associated with their conditions of confinement. In a couple minutes, you’ll hear from board member and former-Senator John Dunne who was there at Attica during the uprising as an outside negotiator and who will be talking to you about the way things were.

At PLS, we deal with issues such as solitary confinement, medical and mental health care, family visitation, the right to practice one’s own religion, programming, education, jail time and sentencing issues and allegations of excessive use of force – all incredibly important to a person’s successful reentry into society.

Currently there are 54 prisons in NYS and over 50,000 incarcerated persons. PLS has four offices across the state – Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca and Plattsburgh. We have a total of 15 attorneys and we respond to over 10,000 letters a year requesting assistance. Most people don’t know what goes on behind prison walls, but we do.

  • We hear from the client who was denied Hep C treatment because he was too old; another client who was denied Hep C treatment because he tested positive for marijuana,
  • The client who told the Department of Corrections over and over again that other prisoners had threatened him because he was gay, begging DOCCS not to double cell him. His pleas went unanswered and after being attacked he was rushed to an emergency room where he was found to have suffered a collapsed and punctured lung and multiple rib fractures and spent a week in the trauma unit at Albany Med.
  • The client who, after being in solitary confinement for 8 months, suffered a complete psychotic break that went unattended by DOCCS and OMH for over three months, during which time at 27 separate disciplinary hearings he received a total of 18 more years of solitary confinement for smearing feces on himself and his cell. Not surprisingly, when he was taken out of prison to stand trial for the event that got him into solitary in the first place, he was found mentally incompetent.
  • The 16-year-old who was put in solitary confinement for four years for getting into a minor altercation with a Correction Officer
  • We have heard from those clients and countless others.

I am pretty sure you all have heard about solitary confinement and its overuse. At PLS we review 100’s of disciplinary hearings every year and we often find major constitutional errors that mandate reversals of those hearings. Over the past three years, our work in this area has resulted in the expungement of over 200 years of solitary confinement and reducing people’s sentences by over 75 years.

But more important than the individual victories is the systemic work we have done that has changed the way prisons in New York State operate.

Before PLS:

  • there were no cameras in the prisons
  • there were no medical exams documenting excessive use of force
  • there was no enforcement of due process or statutory rights before someone was placed in solitary
  • there were no prohibitions on placing someone with a serious mental illness in solitary
  • incarcerated women were forced to undergo strip searches by male officers
  • youth under 18 were treated the same as adults and were subjected to 23 hours a day of solitary confinement when disciplined
  • there were no accommodations for deaf individuals or other physical disabilities
  • there was little to no access to law libraries
  • there were no separate units for veterans, youth and people who suffered from mental illness
  • there was no right to practice one’s own religions, visit with family members, receive books and packages, and the list goes on and on.

So one might think that our work is done, but let me assure you that all of our work would be undone in a nanosecond if we ceased to exist and things would quickly return to the way they were before the Attica uprising.

I say this because I lived it. In 1998, PLS was vetoed out of the NYS budget and we were forced to close our doors for over a year. When we reopened we had a skeletal staff and we almost immediately began receiving complaints from people thrown into solitary confinement based on the administration’s suspicion that they were planning a work stoppage. We had over 100 clients who had been rounded up across the state, given perfunctory disciplinary hearings and placed in solitary on the basis of – well – really no evidence at all. We were able to obtain complete reversals in over 80% of those hearings and reductions in the penalty for the remaining 20%.

The sad reality is that there is so much more work to do, but we simply do not have the resources to address all the meritorious cases that come across our desks every day.

In an effort to address this, in 2011 we opened our Pro Bono Partnership Program currently headed by John Amodeo who is here with us tonight. Through that program we pair lawyers with cases that they can accept on their own or by co-counseling with PLS. The program has been a huge success as we have been able to assist dozens of additional clients and provide attorneys with incredible and winnable cases.

One case, Haywood v. Drown, was a challenge to the constitutionality of a NYS statute. The Decker Law Firm accepted that case – my nephew Jason Murtagh was working there at the time – and was the attorney on the case. We lost in the Court of Appeals, made a motion for cert to the US Supreme Court and it was granted and in a 5-4 decision the U.S.S.C held that NY’s statute was unconstitutional.

Of course, not every case goes to the Supreme Court, but the cases can still be as gratifying. Currently we are co-counseling a case with one of our board member’s firm, Storch and Amini, that involves a client who has been held in solitary confinement for 22 years. I am sure Bijan Amini, who is also here with us tonight, would be more than happy to talk to you all about that case and John Amodeo is here to answer any questions you might have about our pro bono program.

Why is the work we do so important? We have all heard the old adage – and many of us agree that the true measure of a society is how it treats its least privileged.  Fyodor Dostoevsky, the famed Russian novelist (1821 – 1881) once said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Gandhi, Pope Francis, Mother Teresa and others – including politicians of every stripe – have echoed that theme in words and countless deeds, as well as questioning the efficacy of mass incarceration generally.

Our work is also important on a practical level. 97% of the people we send to prison come home and when they do, they will become a part of the fabric of our communities — shopping in grocery stores, sitting next to you in the movie theater or the subway or during a religious service. I think we’d all agree we want them to come home believing that they were treated fairly, that they have paid their debt to society and that they have been given a second chance to renter society as law-abiding, respectful, tax paying citizens.

In closing I want to share with you the words of a client who says, better than I can, how PLS makes a difference.

Our client came to prison with sleep apnea and was given a C-Pap machine upon his initial arrival at Rikers. The machine traveled with him to state prison, but after a dorm search it ended up being damaged and was unusable. Our client then developed pneumonia. He tried to advocate on his own for months and finally wrote to PLS for assistance. Here is an excerpt from his thank you letter:

“After dozens of sick-call visits I was told to “stop abusing sick-call.” My breathing had become harder. Sleep became impossible. I spent many sleepless nights walking back and forth in the rec area so I wouldn’t fall asleep fearful I was going to stop breathing whilst I slept, afraid I would suffocate. Wondering if tonight would be “THE NIGHT” I would die! I would only sleep during day light hours in hopes that should I stop breathing, someone might hear or see me and come help me. Those were horrible days and nights (8 months).

“Then my wife contacted PLS and got them involved (Matthew McGowan). Mr. McGowan was a godsend. He was relentless, never gave up and finally got Mohawk to purchase me a new machine. If not for the dedication, determination and finally his resolve I might not be here today to give praise first to God then Matthew McGowan and the attorneys at PLS. Thank you!

“With Total Respect,

Richard”

I think that sums it up. PLS’ work demonstrates respect for other human beings and, in return, the people we help learn respect.

Thank you so much for being here this evening, for your willingness to learn more about PLS and, perhaps, take that extra step to involve yourselves further in the work that we do. We and our clients welcome you with open arms and extreme appreciation.

 


 

I am not writing this with any thought/hope that people will donate, but if you feel so inclined after reading this, here is a link to their website: https://www.plsny.org/donate-to-pls.html. Mentioned in this link is the fact that you can also “donate” through Amazon Smile. So for anyone that doesn’t shop at smile.Amazon.com over Amazon.com, do it, and maybe consider giving that 0.5% to PLS.


Thank you for taking the time to read this, my mom and what she does everyday mean the world to me. Happy Mother’s day to all the incredible moms out there whose work at home and at their job can often go unnoticed. You’re all rockstars. I had the best weekend with my mom (and her fiancé Ed, my brother, and his girlfriend), we saw Hamilton on broadway and I was in awe. We all cried our eyes out multiple times. Pictures on my homepage Instagram widget of the INCREDIBLE seats Ed bought for us. I will never be able to thank him enough for giving all of us such a wonderful experience.

 

One comment

  1. Thank you Kathleen for your kind words and for always being so supportive of the work I do. You are an amazing daughter. There really aren’t enough words to describe how wonderful you are. Thank you for attending the PLS event and always standing by my side, even when I may embarrass you. Thank you your wisdom, for always making me laugh and for keeping me young! Keep WRITING! I love you, Mom!

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