Mari Flamm – PREP Social Worker

Mari Flamm, LMSW

Re-entry Social Worker

(716) 292-0282

mflamm@plsny.org

Mari joined Prisoners’ Legal Services in November 2021. She is based out of the Newburgh office but spends most of her time meeting clients in the Bronx. Mari received her Master’s in Social Service (MSW equivalent) from Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research in 2020 and was licensed that same year. Mari is passionate about working to end mass incarceration and thinking about the impact incarceration has on the people touched by the criminal legal system. In addition to her experience working with jail-based and youth diversion programs, she has volunteered with a number of prison-related initiatives including the Petey Greene Program, Prison Journalism Project and Prison Health News. In her free time, Mari likes to read memoirs, listen to podcasts and explore New York. 

Jill Marie Nolan – PREP Program Coordinator

Jill Marie Nolan, LCSW

PREP Program Coordinator

(845) 391-3110 ext 1504

jnolan@plsny.org

Jill Marie Nolan, LCSW, joined PLS in November, 2021, as the PREP Program Coordinator. Jill is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA and her Master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University, New York, NY.  Prior to joining PLS, she worked as a hospital social worker in a large academic hospital in New York City. She worked for five years with individuals with HIV/AIDS, then spent seventeen years as the Critical Care Neurology Social Worker of the hospital’s Neurological Intensive Care Unit. Jill has always been interested in the impact of the criminal legal system on individuals and communities and is passionate about helping prepare incarcerated individuals for successful community re-entry. She has volunteered as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and is passionate about animal rights. In her spare time, Jill enjoys traveling, cooking, and spending time with family, friends, and her many animals.

DIRECTOR MURTAGH’S REMARKS AT THE INSPECTOR GENERAL’S PRESS CONFERENCE ABOUT THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION INTO A RECENT UPTICK IN FALSE POSITIVE DRUG URINALYSIS TEST RESULTS.

DIRECTOR MURTAGH’S REMARKS AT THE INSPECTOR GENERAL’S PRESS CONFERENCE ABOUT THE RESULTS OF THE INVESTIGATION INTO A RECENT UPTICK IN FALSE POSITIVE DRUG URINALYSIS TEST RESULTS.

On Tuesday, Karen L. Murtagh, Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, was invited to speak at the Inspector General’s press conference announcing the results of the IG’s investigation into the recent uptick in false positive drug urinalysis results in DOCCS facilities.  The investigation found that DOCCS drug testing policies in 2019 were contrary to manufacturer instructions and resulted in preliminary testing results, which were highly unreliable, being used to impose significant penalties on incarcerated individuals.

Advocating on behalf of incarcerated individuals Director Murtagh characterized the IG’s and the Governor’s work in pursuing justice and human rights as follows:

“Good morning. My name is Karen Murtagh and I am the Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.

First, I would like to thank you, Inspector General Lang, and your entire team, for inviting PLS to be here today. For me, today marks a very important day for the rights of all incarcerated individuals, as the abhorrent practice of punishing incarcerated individuals based on false-positive drug tests has finally come to an end.

Thanks to the Inspector General’s thorough investigation, we now know how this happened, why it happened and how to stop it from happening again.

The IG and the Governor, with the issuance of this report, are signaling that all human rights – whether outside or within prison walls – must be protected. The alternative is unacceptable and is the very reason that my organization – PLS – was funded in the first place 46 years ago after the Attica prison uprising.

Incarcerated individuals are part of our society – they are working to put their past behind them and start anew once they are released. Unfortunately, as you have heard, DOCCS’ drug testing program, run by Microgenics, threw roadblock after roadblock in front of countless individuals on their path to reentry.

Too often, human rights are violated because they involve individuals for whom those in power assume no one cares or no one is watching. When a contract is put out to bid, or an administrative disciplinary hearing produces an unjust result, there are real human beings affected and the ripple effect impacts everyone in society.

When an incarcerated person spends weeks, months, or even years in solitary confinement because of utterly unreliable drug testing equipment, that is a travesty of justice that harms not only the person confined, but all of us. The harms are real, lasting and cannot be overstated. The psychological and physical damage caused by solitary confinement, the loss of family visitation, the lack of proper programming, lost work release and educational opportunities – all of which helps combat recidivism – adds to the ledger for which we as a society need to take account.

Justice delayed is justice denied. The entire concept of justice only works when it is handed out equally. In this case, hundreds, if not thousands of people in New York State prisons, were wrongfully accused, found guilty and punished for drug use. This investigation shows that many individuals in correctional facilities were confused as to what was happening and ignored in their own pursuit of justice.  It is easy to lose faith in our justice system when something like this happens.  We have an obligation in government to ensure the fair administration of justice and what we are witnessing here today is the fulfillment of that responsibility.

The IG and the Governor, through the proper exercise of their oversight powers, have produced a report that I hope will begin the process of “righting a wrong” and also forge a better path forward. I stand with my colleagues here today to call on DOCCS to make sure the necessary checks and balances are put in place to prevent such abuses from ever taking place again.

Again, I thank the Inspector General’s Office for conducting this important investigation and putting forth recommendations to preserve the integrity of the correctional system. I commend Inspector General Lang and her team for shining a spotlight on these important issues and I look forward to our continued partnership in making New York a more just place for each and every one of us. Thank you.”

For IG’s press release, summary of investigation and recommendations of the inspector general, click here.

Other news coverage of this event: ABC News, Albany Times Union, Auburnpub, NY Times, NY1, Spectrum News; On Twitter: @georgejoseph94, @cjciaramella

Elizabeth Banks – Legal Secretary

Elizabeth Banks

Legal Secretary

(607) 273-2283 ext. 1200

ebank@plsny.org

Liz, joined Prisoner’s Legal Services on February 22, 2016 as a legal secretary, providing the Ithaca attorneys with administrative assistance.  She came to PLS from Heritage Park Apartments, in Elmira, NY, where she was the Assistant Youth Project Director for The Heritage Park Apartments Resource Center.  Prior to that position, she worked from 1991 to 2008, as a Legal Secretary for a New York City law firm specializing in construction law.   

Elise Czuchna – Staff Attorney

Elise Czuchna

Staff Attorney

(518) 438-8046 ext. 1118

eczuchna@plsny.org

Elise joined PLS in August 2021 after receiving her J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law. As a law student, Elise participated in the Civil Rights Clinic as a student attorney on a §1983 jail misconduct case and had the opportunity to work on various criminal justice issues while interning with the Texas Civil Rights Project and the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She also served as a judicial intern for the Honorable Lee Yeakel in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. Prior to law school, Elise received her B.A. from Cornell University. Her passion for prison reform work began during the several years she spent volunteering with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) at Auburn Correctional Facility. With PPTG, Elise helped to stage and even performed in the 2018 production The Strength of our Convictions: The Auburn Redemption. Elise continued her prison volunteer work at Lockhart Correctional Facility as an instructor with the Texas Prison Education Initiative. Elise has had a life-long love for The Lord of the Rings and spent a month in New Zealand visiting all of the LOTR movie filming locations. Elise also has an IMDb page.

Christina Alicea – Law Graduate

Christina Alicea

Law Graduate

(518) 438-8046 EXT. 1117

Christina joined PLS in August 2021, after graduating from the University at Buffalo School of Law. As a law student, she interned with PLS in Buffalo and helped to establish the PLS Education Matters Unit, which assists individuals in New York State prisons with their academic and vocational education and programming. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christina also interned with the Volunteer Lawyers’ Project, Erie County Family Court Help Desk, where she conducted intake and assisted indigent families plead their cases while court doors remained closed. Prior to attending law school, Christina attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. There, she was one of six students selected to participate in the University of Houston Pre-Law Pipeline Program, which aims to increase the representation of underrepresented students in legal education. While in Houston, Christina witnessed the immigration crisis at our Southern border firsthand and volunteered with The Baker Ripley Organization to assist low-income permanent residents fill out applications for naturalization. As a Rosanna Rosado Fellow at John Jay, she was further provided with a scholarship which allowed her to take a break from her full-time serving position at the world’s largest Applebee’s in Times Square, NYC. She alternatively interned for Justice Sallie Manzanet-Daniels in the New York Appellate Division, First Department, and Justice Francois Rivera in Kings County Supreme Court. Christina’s experiences have solidified her dedication to assisting disenfranchised individuals and affirmed her passion for transforming the legal system into an equitable one.

LAWSUIT CHALLENGES FIVE POINTS DENIAL OF MOBILITY ACCOMMODATIONS TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

LAWSUIT CHALLENGES FIVE POINTS CORRECTIONAL FACILITY’S DENIAL OF WHEELCHAIRS, CANES, AND OTHER MOBILITY ACCOMMODATIONS TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

For Immediate Release
Media Contact:         Andrew Stecker, astecker@plsny.org, (716) 854-1007
                               Torie Atkinson, tatkinson@dralegal.org, (332) 217-0167

 

August 31, 202,1 Romulus, NY – Today the nonprofit organizations Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) and Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on behalf of people with disabilities who are incarcerated at Five Points Correctional Facility and have been denied mobility-related accommodations they need to get around. Read the complaint here.


Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that DOCCS routinely confiscates people’s mobility aids, like wheelchairs and canes, on arrival, even if they were issued by DOCCS at other facilities; refuses to replace or provide mobility aids when needed; provides broken and unusable shared wheelchairs that are difficult to access and not individualized to the needs of the person with a disability; and denies people assistants to help with cell cleaning and other tasks. Additionally, the plaintiffs assert that people who use wheelchairs and cannot push themselves have no reliable way to get around the facility because of DOCCS’ reliance on an ad-hoc process of calling other people who are incarcerated (known as “pushers”) to push them. The complaint charges that people who use wheelchairs are routinely left stranded while trying to get to and from facility services and programs like meals, medical visits, phone calls, recreation, and the law library. DOCCS’ administration of the pusher program is so inadequate, the lawsuit alleges, that people with disabilities who need pushers themselves are sometimes assigned to be pushers for others.


Plaintiffs Robert Cardew, Harrell Bonner, Philip Nelson, Melvin Johnson, and Khalik Jones have disabilities that require the use of wheelchairs and canes. Plaintiffs have experienced issues such as delays of a year or more to receive requested mobility aids, often only to receive items in disrepair and not individualized for their needs. The shared wheelchairs in Five Points are repeatedly vandalized, too big or too small, have loose wheels, ragged armrests, and missing foot rests. Mr. Bonner used a ripped T-shirt to tie the arm of his chair to its seat. Mr. Cardew was repeatedly told that if he could not push himself to meals, he could simply not eat. Mr. Nelson frequently has no access to a wheelchair, and as a result falls five or six times a month and once broke his nose from a fall. Despite his requests for consistent access to a wheelchair and a pusher, Mr. Nelson was himself assigned to be a pusher. When called to push someone else, he would use the wheelchair’s handles as a walker to support himself. Because no one can be found to assist him, Mr. Johnson is regularly forced to push himself to and from places, even though it is dangerous and painful for him. Mr. Jones requires a cane, but has twice had his cane (provided by other DOCCS facilities) confiscated upon arriving at Five Points. As a result, he has fallen multiple times, including once down stairs.

 

Plaintiffs maintain that DOCCS’ significant failures to provide these necessary mobility aids and services amount to unlawful discrimination against not just Plaintiffs, but a class of people with mobility-related disabilities who have been unable to safely and meaningfully navigate the facility and the programs and services it offers, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“It has been a constant struggle with DOCCS to get a wheelchair that isn’t falling apart and someone to push it,” said plaintiff Robert Cardew. “When I have to push myself, I can’t breathe and my chest hurts. I shouldn’t be hurting myself like this just to get to and from meals and programs, or spending hours a day waiting for someone to help me. Things need to change not just for me but for all of the other guys in here who can’t get around.”

“I have been waiting more than 11 years for a working wheelchair that I am not tying together with string and ripped T-shirts,” said plaintiff Harrell Bonner. “I can’t get to meals, to the yard, or even the bathroom because I can’t get a pusher. The situation is dehumanizing and stressful. Five Points needs to do right by all of us who use wheelchairs and canes.”

 

“DOCCS has failed to ensure that people with mobility disabilities have access to the accommodations they need and are entitled to under the law,” said Torie Atkinson, Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates. “It is time for DOCCS to abolish this discriminatory patchwork system and provide people with disabilities working wheelchairs, canes, cell assistants, and a functional way to get around the facility.”

 

“The lack of appropriate accommodations for our clients with disabilities has left them vulnerable to abuse, unable to access essential services and, in some cases, with worsened medical conditions,” said Megan Welch, Staff Attorney at Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York.


“The road to protecting the rights of people with disabilities in prison has been a long one and PLS has played an integral role in that fight,” said Karen Murtagh, Executive Director of PLS. In 2002, PLS and other advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of people with mental illness in prison. That complaint, like the one filed today, alleged that the State was in violation of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, by disciplining people rather than addressing their serious mental health needs. “In 2006, the State settled that case, agreeing, among other things, not to place people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement. Today, PLS is once again championing the rights of people with disabilities in prison, and I have no doubt we will, once again, prevail,” said Murtagh.


The plaintiffs and class members seek a declaration that these practices are illegal and an injunction to require DOCCS to change its policies and practices so that people with mobility disabilities at Five Points have the accommodations they need to get around the facility and access all of the programs, services, and activities that non-disabled people there can access. The plaintiffs also seek compensatory damages for the pain and suffering they have experienced as a result of this treatment.

 

About Disability Rights Advocates
Founded in 1993, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is the leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-change, class action cases. DRA is proud to have upheld the promise of the ADA since our inception. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to health care, employment, transportation, education, disaster preparedness planning, voting and housing. For more information, visit http://www.dralegal.org.

 

About Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York
Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS) is a non-profit legal services organization founded in 1976 to provide indigent incarcerated New Yorkers access to the courts. There are over 32,000 individuals incarcerated in 51 prisons across New York State, and PLS responds to more than 10,000 requests for assistance annually. Our mission is to provide high quality, effective legal representation and assistance to indigent prisoners, to help them to secure their civil and human rights, and to advocate for humane prisons and for a more humane criminal justice system.