Our mission is to challenge the carceral system through litigation, advocacy, client counseling, partnership with impacted individuals and communities, and outreach to policymakers and the public in order to promote the human rights of incarcerated persons and end harmful confinement.
Prisoners’ Legal Services has a very small staff. The typical prisoner to lawyer ratio at PLS is over 3,000 to one. Therefore, while PLS responds to requests for advice and guidance from prisoners and their families on many issues, our work is focused on five key priorities critical to our clients:
1. Health care
The Health Care Project at Prisoners’ Legal Services helps prisoners with serious medical needs that are not being met. Our advocates counsel prisoners, attorneys, and family members about their right to adequate health care and how to seek treatment internally. We also advocate directly with jail and prison health administrators over deficient care, and in certain cases, we represent prisoners in litigation.
2. staff assaults
The Prison Brutality Project was created to address the widespread problem of correctional staff abusing their authority by assaulting the men and women who they are employed to keep safe. PLS conducts in-depth investigations into prisoner allegations of brutality and by filing as many meritorious lawsuits as our resources allow.
3. Conditions of Confinement
Prisoners’ constitutional right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment prohibits correctional facilities from depriving prisoners of “the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities.” Examples of violations of this right include extreme overcrowding, lack of appropriate sanitation and toilet facilities, failure to meet established safety standards, and unsafe exposure to extreme heat or cold.
4. solitary confinement
Restrictive housing is defined as a housing placement where a prisoner is confined to a cell for more than 22 hours per day. Solitary confinement is well known to cause serious and long-term harm to persons who are subjected to it, including a marked increased likelihood of committing suicide in the first year following release.
5. Racial equity in Corrections
The same racial inequities and the disparate impact that plagues black and brown communities exist within the prison system on a heightened scale because behind the prison walls, there is far less transparency, a dehumanizing culture, and little accountability. REICI is an organization-wide effort to eliminate institutional racism and its impact on black and brown incarcerated individuals in the day-to-day operations of Massachusetts’ prisons and jails.
PLS was founded in 1972. The organization emerged from the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1960s, which developed from popular movements in support of civil rights. PLS’ mission is to challenge the carceral system through litigation, advocacy, client counseling, partnership with impacted individuals and communities, and outreach to policymakers and the public in order to promote the human rights of incarcerated persons and end harmful confinement.
Fueled by mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and racism, the 1980s were marked by prison and jail overcrowding and mistreatment of HIV-positive incarcerated people along with guard assaults and inadequate medical and mental health care. During the 1990s, explicitly brutal policies supported abandoning already limited rehabilitative programming for more punitive goals. Educational programs beyond those leading to a high school equivalency diploma were eliminated. Prisoner contact with the outside world was drastically diminished by ending furloughs and minimizing work-release placements, parole, and media access. The decade also saw a dramatically increased reliance on solitary confinement as a management tool across prison systems.
PLS, along with many advocates including currently and formerly incarcerated people and their loved ones have been working hard to push back against solitary confinement and address the needs of those funneled into the carceral system. In the last decade, PLS successfully sued to obtain access to life-saving Hepatitis C medications for those in state prisons, helped bring major improvements to Bridgewater State Hospital and end the imprisonment of women civilly committed for substance use treatment, and helped pass major reforms as part of the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2018. The Act established the state’s first compassionate release program, reduced the state’s reliance on solitary confinement, and improved treatment for LGBTQ+ people who are incarcerated. This year, the DOC announced plans to end its use of solitary confinement and to finally close the Department Disciplinary Unit, one of the most restrictive solitary units in the nation.