By Brother W. (Uthman) Williams
From PHN Issue 28, Spring 2016
The New York State prison health care system has been broken for a long time now. In 1977, women incarcerated in New York brought civil rights claims challenging medical care. Chief Judge Kaufman responded: “The sad often desperate plight of many incarcerated in our nation’s prisons is most dramatically revealed by the all too frequent petitions of inmates who have been denied access to basic medical services.”
One can look at today’s prison health care system and come to the conclusion that Chief Judge Kaufman was speaking of current conditions in any of New York State’s grossly negligent prison health units. The most important question is: What is the solution? The solution is a three-part one that comes in the form of education, application by way of litigation and teaching others.
One must learn how to comprehend what they are reading and writing, by getting into school and acquiring a basic education. Then get into legal research class (if they have one in your facility). This is so you may know how to navigate the courts for your rights. Some materials to start from are: Columbia University Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual, the Jailhouse Lawyer’s Handbook, Rights of Prisoners (4th edition), the Prisoners’ Self-Help Litigation Manual (4th edition), and Constitutional Rights of Prisoners (9th edition).
Second, the necessary steps should be taken in order that you be given your basic rights. In New York, one must first file a grievance and appeal it all the way up to the Central Office Review Committee. Then you can bring an Article 78 challenging the administrative decision on the state level or a federal lawsuit challenging civil rights violations. You would have to take some time and do some research in order to understand what steps are best for your case and in your state. The books above will help you find out where to start.
If you lose your lawsuit, you are still a winner, because you put up a fight—and by going through this process, you will have firsthand knowledge that you can use to teach others how to protect themselves. If you can help someone get adequate medical care, then you help everyone in the system, because if they deny one person medical care, then they will do the same to all of us. So reach back and give what you know by teaching it.
I have been down this road, and one of the most important things I have learned from pro se litigation is that when prison officials know that you’re willing to take the fight to the court system, they will be fast to give you your rights and basic human respect. In other words, they respect the pen, so let your pen be your sword, and fight in a productive way. Stay strong in solidarity.