Access to justice is especially difficult for the two million people locked up in state and federal prisons, jails, and immigration detention facilities across the country. Built on the foundation of white supremacy, mass incarceration and immigrant detention are forms of structural violence that target and dehumanize people of color, queer, and immigrant communities. People that are incarcerated are subject to harsh and inhumane conditions that violate their basic human rights, including overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, abuse by staff, forced labor, solitary confinement, and separation from families and support networks. The effects of mass incarceration and immigrant detention spill out and impact entire communities, perpetuating cycles of poverty, trauma, and oppression.
Carceral institutions are held up not just by government actors, but also by a network of corporations that profit from the incarceration of human beings. This includes companies that run private prisons and detention centers, as well as medical care and food service providers. It also includes financial service providers, telecommunication companies, surveillance and corrections technology vendors, corporations that contract cheap prison labor, and private probation companies.
Public Justice’s Access to Justice Project is dismantling immunity doctrines and other procedural barriers that deny incarcerated people access to justice. By making the civil justice system more accessible for incarcerated people and their families, we aim to mitigate human suffering, to make working with carceral facilities unprofitable, and to support a new vision of criminal justice that prioritizes restoration and healing over punishment and violence.
We do this through litigating high-stakes civil rights appeals and developing novel legal theories that will help hold prisons and detention facilities—and the many corporations that profit from mass incarceration—accountable.
In May 2023, Public Justice filed an amicus brief on behalf of a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Rights Behind Bars, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and the Southern Center for Human Rights, challenging for-profit correctional healthcare provider Corizon’s abuse of the bankruptcy system to evade liability for a decade of unlawful treatment of incarcerated people. Case Brief.
In May 2023, Public Justice secured a $1.325 million settlement against Webb County, Texas and jailers at Webb County Jail on behalf of Nelda Nuncio, the mother of Luis Alberto “Albert” Barrientos, a 22-year-old who died of a treatable infection while in pre-trial detention at Webb County Jail after his medical needs were ignored for days. Public Justice defeated a motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds and briefed a motion for summary judgment, arguing defendants were not entitled to qualified immunity because the right to adequate medical care for pre-trial detainees was clearly established. Case Brief.
In February 2023, Public Justice filed an amicus brief in Brown v. Pouncy, a Fifth Circuit case about the proper statute of limitations for § 1983 actions. Public Justice’s amicus brief argued that giving the plaintiff only one year to file a lawsuit after he was violently beaten by police officers following his arrest for a traffic violation was inconsistent with the federal policy and law underlying § 1983, and made a novel argument rooted in textualist and originalist theory that a court may not borrow and apply a state-law limitation period that gives a plaintiff less time to file a § 1983 action than they would have to file an analogous action under state law.
In July 2022, Public Justice helped secure a Fifth Circuit victory in Moore v. LaSalle Management, an action on behalf of the surviving family members of Erie Moore, who was beaten to death by guards at a for-profit prison in Louisiana. Mr. Moore was arrested for a misdemeanor offense and taken to a private prison operated by LaSalle Management Company. At the prison, guards dropped Mr. Moore on his head several times, sprayed him with toxic chemicals in the face and groin while shackled, and then dragged him to an area of the prison without security cameras where he was beaten into a state of unconsciousness. The Fifth Circuit overturned the district court’s ruling against Mr. Moore and held that there is sufficient evidence to support the family’s constitutional claims against LaSalle, the guards, and the city. Mr. Moore’s family now has the opportunity to present their case to a jury and hold the defendants accountable for their horrific offenses. Case Brief.