2019 Legislative Session: This session has been a busy one, requiring us to attend and testify at committee hearings in both the Senate and the House on an almost weekly basis. Many bills having to do with criminal justice reform were introduced, but not many of them have advanced through the required committees thus far. It does not appear that this will be a ground-breaking year for prison, sentencing or criminal justice reform in Arizona. We continue to work with Legislators who are open to suggestion and discussion about needed reforms. However, we do not agree with those who claim that Arizona is "ready" for major overhaul of its criminal sentencing code. That is not the sentiment we get when speaking to legislative leaders and others. Once the session is over, we hope to meet with Legislators who are open to introducing responsible and sensible bills in the 2020 session.
March 21, 2019: Attended the meeting of the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission
2018 Statewide Arizona Town Hall on Criminal Justice Reform: James and Donna Hamm were participants in the town hall held November 8-10. A soon-to-be published report will be published by Arizona Town Hall which will include the recommendations for criminal justice reform made as a result of consensus of attendees. Private citizens, public officials, judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, prisoner advocates and formerly incarcerated people attended this event, as did one legislator. Nothing "ground-breaking" took place, and it would be interesting to go back to the 1982 Town Hall which studied the same topic to see if any of its recommendations were implemented into law. But some worthwhile recommendations were made and, if ever adopted into law by legislators, will assist in making our criminal justice system more fair and just. Needless to say, we have a long way to go in Arizona toward this goal. By the beginning of December 2018, you may wish to visit Arizona Town Hall website to download or print off a copy of the Final Report.
Hamm v. Ryan: This is our litigation which challenges the constitutionality of the $25 "visitor background fee" which is imposed on all persons applying to visit a state prisoner as of July 20, 2011. On January 4, 2014, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled to deny review. This means the litigation in this matter is finished and the $25 "fee" (which we believe is an illegal tax) will remain intact. Arizona is the only state prison system where visitors are charged this type of "fee." None of the collected monies are used to defray the cost of background checks. Instead, 100% of the money is used for the Department's "Building and Maintenance Fund". The Department owns approximately 1,500 buildings throughout all its prison facilities, and the visitors are paying for maintenance and renewal of all these structures, even though visitors use a fraction of these buildings for visitation purposes. Most disturbingly, the ruling suggests that the Legislature can readily use prisoner's families as a "cash cow" when revenues decline. A shameful proposition.
Arner v. Ryan: This litigation challenged the 1% "banking fee" imposed on any deposits made to a prisoner's account as of July 20, 2011.. This case is even stronger than the one involving background check fees because it is clearly tied to income. Some prisoners who have no income or deposits to their accounts will pay nothing at all toward the Building and Renewal Fund, while others who have large amounts to deposit have to pay more. Taxes are based on income; how this could not be deemed a "tax" by the Court is laughable at best. The Arizona Court of Appeals denied review. This "tax" on prisoners will stand.
Note: In both of the above cases, none of the monies collected from visitors or from inmates is used to defray the costs of visitor background checks or of banking account management. Instead, 100% of the fees are used for "Building Renewal and Maintenance." Remarkably, each court so far has held that it is perfectly OK to bill the visitor or the inmate for services or fees that are completely unrelated to the named purpose and, instead, to transfer all collected monies to the building/maintenance fund.
ACLU Lawsuit Against DOC Challenging Medical Care and Abuse of Solitary Confinement; The Defendants representing the Dept. of Corrections in this case have subpoenaed Middle Ground's records for all advocacy we have performed (since 1983!!!) for prisoners with respect to medical issues. We have objected to the expansive nature of the subpoena and have, thus far, refused to comply. Apparently, the Defendants attorney recognizes that Middle Ground Prison Reform has been a leading agency in advocating for prisoners medical care. The only other subpoena issued was to the Arizona Republic to obtain records they used as background for stories they have written about the dangerous and sometimes tragic medical care afforded to prisoners.
UPDATE: Hon. Neil Wake, District Court Judge, issued a Protective Order to cover Donna Hamm, as Director of Middle Ground as well as to protect Middle Ground as an organization, ordering that we were not required to produce any records for the Defendants in this litigation. In a hearing on the matter, the Defendants were sharply rebuked by the Court for their attempts to intimidate us with requests for production of massive amounts of records. We are remaining on the Court's mailing list for all rulings by the Court pertaining to this case.
The case has settled out of court (as we predicted for many months). The settlement was formally approved by the federal court in February 2015. We aren't completely pleased with the settlement. For example, it requires the Plaintiff's attorneys to provide a two-week notice before they inspect any prison medical units or examine records of prisoner care. This just invites the Department and its medical provider to "hide" either records or inmates (move inmates to a different unit than the one that will be inspected). Also, the settlement is dependent upon the DOC obtaining additional funding from the Legislature in order to hire more medical workers. This is fraught with potential for failure, especially in a budget year when Legislators will be facing a half-billion dollar shortfall. The settelment calls for the DOC to be in compliance with certain performance criteria, but must meet such criteria at a rate that never exceeds 85%. Hence, even with the best performance possible, only 85% of performance criteria will be met. The settlement does not have a provision which requires the Defendants (DOC) to take immediate action with regard to any problem or issue brought to their attention. The settlement only "presumes" this, but does not require it in writing. What this really means is that the DOC can ignore -- even when performing at its best required level -- 15% of the medical cases brought to their attention. This does not bode well, at least in our opinion.
Having said all of the above, we believe that some improvements will occur and it is a positive step in the right direction. Clearly, the settlement and its terms seem to suggest that the Plaintiff's lawyers were not certain of a "win" if they went to trial, and that is why the settlement is not stronger. Certainly, the lawyers on BOTH sides made out handsomely -- the bill for this litigation was over $8 million in attorney fees which went to Plaintiff and Defense attorneys and their firms.
Money Orders/Checks Will No Longer Be Accepted As Of October 2014:The DOC has announced a new policy, Director's Instruction 322, effecitve in October 15, 2014. From that time forward, all deposits to inmate accounts will be required to be completed via electronic money transfers with companies who are contracted with the DOC. We reviewed the contracts that DOC has with the companies who will handle the electronic transfers and, as far as we can detect, no kickback or "commission/incentive" amount will be paid to DOC by these companies. In any case, if you formally used a money order to send funds to a loved one, it cost you about $0.75. Now, sending money, depending upon the amount (as though it costs the company more to process the electronic transfer if the numbers are higher!!), it will cost about $6 - 8.00. This seems like just one more way for the Department and its cohorts to use prisoner's families as "cash cows." Having reseached the legality of this policy, we can find no case law to support a challenge to it, nor does it violate any constitutional right. The ONLY inmates who may be able to individually challenge the policy are ones whose regular monthly deposits come from a business, government agency or trust fund, etc., and who may not be able to arrange for electronic fund transfers from those entities. We will not be handling invidual litigation on that issue for separate inmates.
Snail Mail and E-Mail Advocacy: Middle Ground continues to receive about 300 letters each month from prisoners throughout the state, in both state-operated and private prisons, as well as to receive about 30-50 emails each day from family members of prisoners. We try to respond as quickly as we can. Please remind prisoners who send us letters that they should not sent original documents; they will not have documents returned to them unless they include return postage; we do not visit prisoners in person; and we do not provide free lawyers for appeals, civil rights cases or for any other purpose.