935 F.Supp. 332 (S.D.N.Y. 1996), 75 Civ. 3073, Benjamin v. Jacobson

Docket Nº:75 Civ. 3073
Citation:935 F.Supp. 332
Party Name:Benjamin v. Jacobson
Case Date:July 23, 1996
Court:United States District Courts, 2nd Circuit, Southern District of New York

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935 F.Supp. 332 (S.D.N.Y. 1996)

James BENJAMIN, et al., Plaintiffs,


Michael P. JACOBSON, et al., Defendants and related cases.

75 Civ. 3073 (HB).

United States District Court, S.D. New York.

July 23, 1996

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Daniel L. Greenberg, John Boston, Sarah Kerr, Dori A. Lewis, Marta Nelson, The Legal Aid Society, Prisoners' Rights Project, New York City, for Plaintiffs.

Paul A. Crotty, Corporation Counsel of the City of New York (Lorna B. Goodman, June R. Buch, Laura A. Chamberlain, Florence A. Hutner, Assistant Corporation Counsel, of counsel), New York City, for Defendants.

Mary Jo White, United States Attorney for the S.D. New York (Sara L. Shudofsky, Assistant United States Attorney, of counsel), New York City, for U.S.


BAER, District Judge:

Defendants have moved for immediate termination of the Consent Decrees and all supplemental orders entered in this action and the six related cases that are encompassed herein 1 based on the recently enacted Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995 ("PLRA" or "the Act"), Pub.L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321, §§ 801-810 (Apr. 26, 1996). Plaintiffs oppose the motion on the basis that the Act is superseded by the Federal Rules of Civil

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Procedure and is unconstitutional. 2 Although the Court's concerns with this new legislation are myriad, I am constrained under the law to uphold it. As the Supreme Court reminds us in the course of upholding the constitutionality of a Social Security eligibility provision:

[I]t is not within our authority to determine whether the congressional judgment expressed in that Section is sound or equitable, or whether it comports well or ill with purposes of the Act.... The answer to such inquiries must come from Congress, not the courts. Our concern here, as often, is with power, not with wisdom.

Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603, 611, 80 S.Ct. 1367, 1373, 4 L.Ed.2d 1435 (1960). Accordingly, the defendants' motion is granted and the Consent Decrees are vacated.


The Consent Decrees in these related cases were entered in 1978-1979. As drafted and agreed to by the parties, and proposed to the Court for its approval, these decrees aimed to ensure that prison conditions became and remained safe and humane. The Decrees address issues that affect individual detainees directly as well as more structural, institutional problems that arise in prison management. Detainees, it should be noted, are those men and women awaiting plea or trial. They have not yet been convicted of anything.

A few brief examples of the most important provisions of the Consent Decrees may be helpful. On the individual level, the Consent Decrees ensure that detainee mail and property are handled properly, and that procedures in concert with constitutional protections are followed during detainee cell and body searches. On an institutional level, the Consent Decrees seek to maintain the physical plant of the jails in a condition safe for human habitation. They mandate that attention be given to vermin and insect control, sanitation, maintenance and refuse removal. Other provisions govern food services to the detainees and ensure that the detainees are adequately fed while in custody, with food that is prepared and served in a sanitary environment.

The PLRA, which was passed and signed as part of an appropriations bill, deals primarily with prisoners' rights and prison conditions litigation. This decision represents one of the first tests with respect to the constitutionality of the Act. Section 802 of the PLRA amends 18 U.S.C. §§ 3626(a)(1), 3626(b)(2) and (3) and 3626(e) as follows:

(a) Requirements for Relief.--

(1) Prospective relief.--(A) Prospective relief in any civil action with respect to prison conditions shall extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right of a particular plaintiff or plaintiffs. The court shall not grant or approve any prospective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right. The court shall give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the relief.

* * * * * *

(b) Termination of Relief.--

* * * * * *

(2) Immediate termination of prospective relief.--In any civil action with respect to prison conditions, a defendant or intervener shall be entitled to the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.

(3) Limitation.--Prospective relief shall not terminate if the court makes written findings based on the record that prospective

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relief remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation.

* * * * * *

(e) Procedure for Motions Affecting Prospective Relief.--

(1) Generally.--The court shall promptly rule on any motion to modify or terminate prospective relief in a civil action with respect to prison conditions.

(2) Automatic stay.--Any prospective relief subject to a pending motion shall be automatically stayed during the period--

(A)(i) beginning on the 30th day after such motion is filed, in the case of a motion made under paragraph (1) or (2) of subsection (b); or

(ii) beginning on the 180th day after such motion is filed, in the case of a motion made under any other law; and

(B) ending on the date the court enters a final order ruling on the motion.

Retrogression or even harmful aspects of new legislation play little or no role in the Court's assessment of its constitutionality. As now Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in United States Railroad Retirement Board v. Fritz, 449 U.S. 166, 101 S.Ct. 453, 66 L.Ed.2d 368 (1980):

"The Constitution presumes that, absent some reason to infer antipathy, even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process and that judicial intervention is generally unwarranted no matter how unwisely we may think a political branch has acted."

Id. at 179 n. 12, 101 S.Ct. at 462 n. 12 (quoting Vance v. Bradley, 440 U.S. 93, 97, 99 S.Ct. 939, 942-43, 59 L.Ed.2d 171 (1979) (footnote omitted in original)).

With that thought in mind a brief historical analysis of the twin concepts of what might be called reform in correctional policy and prison conditions may provide a valuable setting for this decision.

In Colonial times, there were no prisons and certainly no prisons as we know them today. Prisons did not begin to appear until well into the 18th Century. This is not to say the colonists had no philosophy about crime and how to handle perpetrators. In essence, criminals were punished, punished severely and that was that. There was no thought that men and women who had committed a crime could be rehabilitated and go on to live useful lives. Branding on the forehead was a frequent penalty for a first offense; death for a third. The fact that there were no prisons played a large role in the colonists' approach to punishment. In the early 18th Century, we saw the beginnings of our prison system in what were characterized as county jails. Prisoners were placed in rooms or perhaps in a single room; there were no cells and there was no effort to distinguish between or separate men, women or children. For some time and certainly into the second decade of the 18th Century, while there was capital punishment for murder, many serious crimes, including arson, rape and burglary, exacted the forfeiture of property, restitution and relatively brief terms of imprisonment. From the very beginning, conditions in our prisons were marked by overcrowding, fire hazards and poor sanitation. Some of the same conditions which prompted the Consent Decrees in this case and at which the PRLA has taken aim.

Later in the 18th Century in what is known as the age of enlightenment in Europe, the concept of "correctional" reform began to emerge. At the same time, the hazards of prison life became known and changes began to take place. In his volume, The State of the Prisons, published in England in 1777, John Howard awakened public opinion with a detailed discussion of the inhuman conditions prevalent in most jails and prisons. The same kinds of problems emerged from Howard's inspection as had plagued the prison business from the beginning. They included poor food or no food; poor ventilation which prompted an increased risk of fire; little or no medical attention and overcrowding.

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Following the American Revolution, our new nation embraced the reforms of the enlightenment including attention to correctional reform and to prison conditions. America wanted to begin life as a nation utilizing the most modern concepts in the correctional field and the most modern penitentiaries. Correctional reforms began to appear in new state codes and the theory of reform primarily in the guise of rehabilitation replaced earlier thinking where punishment itself was the only goal. The modern prison emerged during the early decades of the 19th Century and incarceration was viewed as simply one of several correctional goals. It was part of...

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