New York State has an obligation to provide quality legal services to all, regardless of economic and social status. The fulfillment of this obligation is, indeed, the underpinning of any fair and just society. When I first came to PLS, in 1983, as a law intern, we had a staff of over 30 attorneys and six offices across the state. Soon after, we witnessed a prison population explosion in New York State that resulted in the incarceration of over 70,000 people by 1997. Although PLS’s growth did not keep up with that of the prison population, we did receive gradual increases in our funding which, in turn, enabled us to, by the mid 1990’s, employ over 40 attorneys in seven offices across the state. Because of this, we were able to provide the quality legal services the state is obligated to provide and make great strides in prison reform.
Our work has helped decrease brutality and increase compliance with regulations and constitutional mandates in disciplinary proceedings. We have obtained either successful verdicts against or settled cases against over 160 individually named officers. As a result of our brutality litigation there are cameras in most New York State prisons, use of force examination procedures and protocols that must be followed by DOCCS employees, including all medical staff and strict cell removal and strip frisk procedures. Our success in the disciplinary area has been no less. We have successfully appealed hundreds of disciplinary cases and successfully litigated hundreds more court cases on various issues such as witness denial, lack of substantial evidence, failure to assess the credibility and reliability of confidential information and the holding of inabsentia hearings. Our work has resulted in, among other things, prisoners being afforded their first amendment rights to practice their religion, prohibiting the creation of an “AIDS” only prison, improving the living conditions at various prisons across the state, protecting the visitation rights of prisoners, improving medical and mental health care and improving the policies and practices regarding strip searches and body cavity searches.
Although our resources today are significantly less than what they were thirty years ago, we have continued to maintain a statewide presence with regional offices in Albany, Buffalo, Plattsburgh and Ithaca. As we move forward in 2012, with a prison popluation of over 55,000, I am confident that PLS will continue to effect real change in our prisons. We have accomplished a great deal since we first opened our doors in 1976, but there is still much work to be done. Securing civil and human rights for prisoners, advocating for more humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system is our mission. Regardless of the hurdles we face, we will continue to work hard to fulfill that mission.
Karen L. Murtagh is the Executive Director Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS). She is a graduate of Clarkson University and Albany Law School. She has litigated a variety of prisoners’ rights issues including prisoners’ due process rights at disciplinary hearings, excessive force, treatment of mentally ill prisoners, the First Amendment, the constitutionality of State statutes, and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). She has tried cases in both the Court of Claims and Federal Court and has argued numerous cases before New York State courts including the New York Court of Appeals and successfully as amicus before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging the constitutionality of a New York State statute. She has previously worked as a staff attorney, managing attorney, Director of Litigation and Deputy Director for PLS. She has provided extensive training to attorneys on administrative and Article 78 practice and how to litigate excessive force cases in federal court. She has also served on the faculty of Albany Law School as an adjunct professor where she established a clinic program for prisoners’ rights and taught Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Constitutional Law, Court of Claims Practice, and Litigation Skills. She is a member of the New York State Bar Association and sits on the NYS Bar Association’s Civil Rights Committee. She is a Board member of the New York State Defenders Association. She is also an advisor to the NYSDA Special Committee on Immigration Representation.