'STOP' Bill Threatens Rights
Courts need power to protect prisoners, including children
NINE children in South Carolina who were confined to the state training school attempted suicide and were transferred to the state mental hospital. Each child was subjected to long periods of isolation and injected with drugs as part of ''aversive therapy.'' Some were bound to their beds while naked or in paper gowns.
The ''STOP'' bill (Stop Turning Out Prisoners Act), passed by the US House of Representatives and now pending before the Senate, would permit this kind of abuse to go unchecked.
In essence, STOP (Senate bill 400) would deny the courts the power to remedy constitutional violations in prison-conditions cases. It violates the basic principle that even the least deserving people are protected by the Constitution.
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of the youths in South Carolina, resulting in a consent decree in which the use of restraints and isolation was limited and the use of drugs as ''aversive therapy'' prohibited. STOP would invalidate this decree.
On the surface the bill targets prisoners, but in reality it represents an attack on the power of the courts to protect fundamental human rights. It also strikes a blow against the authority of state and local officials to remedy severe health and safety problems in their own institutions.
We urge the rejection of the STOP bill for the following reasons:
*STOP would limit a federal court's time to remedy unconstitutional prison conditions to two years after judgment.
A California judge found that prisoners, while restrained by guards or in shackles, were beaten on the head, kicked and hit with batons, had teeth knocked out, and were burned with scalding water. Prison administrators knew about the guard brutality and ignored it. The judge ruled the beatings unconstitutional and ordered officials to develop a plan to end them. Under STOP, the order would end in two years, even if the abuses continue.
*STOP would strip the courts of the power to grant preliminary or emergency relief, even in the face of major crises. STOP would have prevented an emergency order for prison officials in Pennsylvania to screen and control tuberculosis when there was evidence of the disease, thereby endangering the health of the community.
*STOP is based upon the spurious premise that the federal courts have responded to lawsuits challenging prison overcrowding by ''turning out'' prisoners.
Prisoners are only released if state officials elect to meet constitutional requirements through releases rather than by building new facilities or considering alternative sentencing options.
*STOP makes settlement agreements void, hampering state government officials who want to settle prison-conditions lawsuits before trial. In Ohio, a consent decree prohibiting officials from sending juveniles to a jail where a 15-year old girl was raped by a guard would be terminated by STOP.
*STOP should not be confused with the ''Stopping Abusive Prisoner Lawsuits'' bill, HR667, which is intended to control frivolous lawsuits filed by individual prisoners without attorneys.
State officials do not want to run their prisons concentration-camp style, nor do they want to put their staff at risk of injury or disease. The STOP bill would prevent them from entering into consent decrees and would have the unintended consequence of forcing states to bear the expense of long and costly trials.
To pass STOP would be a grave mistake and the beginning of a dangerous trend of preventing court review of human rights violations.