America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Ely State Prison makes it to the Dishonorable Mentions (top 17)

America’s 10 Worst Prisons: Dishonorable Mentions
7 runners-up, from a “gladiator school” to America’s largest death row.

By James Ridgeway and Jean Casella
Wed May. 15, 2013, in:  Mother Jones Magazine

#1: ADX (federal supermax)
#2: Allan B. Polunsky Unit (Texas)
#3: Tent City Jail (Phoenix)
#4: Orleans Parish (Louisiana)
#5: LA County Jail (Los Angeles)
#6: Pelican Bay (California)
#7: Julia Tutwiler (Alabama)
#8: Reeves Country Detention Complex (Texas)
#9: Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility (Mississippi)
#10: Rikers Island (New York City)

Read the complete introduction to our 10 Worst Prisons project.
Last of 11 parts.

Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around, and while not all of the facilities described in this series have all of the problems we explore, some stand out as particularly bad actors. These dishonorable mentions make up the final installment of our 11-part series, a subjective ranking based on three years of research, correspondence with prisoners, and interviews with reform advocates concerning the penal facilities with the grimmest claims to infamy.

Attica Correctional Facility (Attica, New York): More than four decades after its famous uprising, New York’s worst state prison still lives up to its brutal history. According to the Correctional Association of New York, which has a legislative mandate to track prison conditions, Attica is plagued by staff-on-prisoner violence, intimidation, and sexual abuse.

Communications Management Units (Marion, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana): These two federal prisons-within-prisons, whose populations are more than two-thirds Muslim, were opened secretly by the Bureau of Prisons during the Bush administration, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which is challenging the facilities in a federal lawsuit. “The Bureau claims that CMUs are designed to hold dangerous terrorists and other high-risk inmates, requiring heightened monitoring of their external and internal communications,” notes a lawsuit fact sheet. “Many prisoners, however, are sent to these isolation units for their constitutionally protected religious beliefs, unpopular political views, or in retaliation for challenging poor treatment or other rights violations in the federal prison system.” (Also see: Pelican Bay.)

Ely State Prison (Ely, Nevada): A “shocking and callous disregard for human life” is how an auditor described medical care at Ely, which houses the state’s death row along with other maximum security prisoners (PDF). The audit, which found that one prisoner was allowed to rot to death from gangrene, formed the basis of a 2008 class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU’s National Prison Project. The suit was settled in 2010, but by 2012 the prison still was not in full compliance.

Idaho Correctional Center (Kuna, Idaho): Run by Corrections Corporation of America, the world’s largest private prison company, ICC has been dubbed a “gladiator school” for its epidemic of gang violence. According to a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the ACLU of Idaho (PDF), the violence is not only condoned but actively promoted by the staff. The suit was settled, but last November, the ACLU said CCA appeared to be violating the agreement, which called for increased staffing and training, reporting of assaults to the local sheriff’s office, and disciplinary measures for staffers who didn’t take steps to stop or prevent assaults.

San Quentin State Prison (Marin County, California): This decrepit prison, which sits on a $2 billion piece of bayside real estate, is home to America’s largest death row. As of late-April, there were 711 men and 20 women condemned to die at San Quentin—you can find the latest stats here (PDF); the figure is constantly changing, despite a state moratorium on executions, because prisoners frequently die of illness or old age. Some even commit suicide rather than remain in solitary limbo.

Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola, Louisiana): At America’s largest prison, those who embrace warden Burl Cain’s pet program of “moral rehabilitation” through Christianity are afforded privileges while sinners languish in institutional hell. A former slave plantation, the prison lends its name to the so-called Angola 3, two of whom have been held in solitary for 40 years, largely for their perceived political beliefs. (In March, Louisiana’s attorney general declared, bafflingly, that the men had “never been in solitary confinement.”)

The federal pen at Lewisburg.
United States Penitentiary (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania): In this overcrowded supermax, the target of multiple lawsuits, prisoners are locked down for 23 to 24 hours a day in the company of a cellmate. One lawsuit alleges that prison officials deliberately pair people with their enemies, and that this practice has led to at least two deaths. The suit also claims that prisoners have been strapped to their bunks with four-point restraints if they resist their cell assignments.

Research for this project was supported by a grant from the Investigative Fund and The Nation Institute, as well as a Soros Justice Media Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations. Additional reporting by Beth Broyles, Valeria Monfrini, Katie Rose Quandt, and Sal Rodriguez.

If You Are a Prisoner at Ely State Prison, a Class Action Lawsuit May Affect Your Rights

This was posted on Make the Walls Transparent, June 9, 2009 and received by them as an email from the ACLU.

NOTE TO FAMILY AND FRIENDS OF INMATES AT ELY STATE PRISON: If you have a loved on inside Ely State Prison, please print this article and send it in to them. This notice should be placed in in the law library, infirmary, and each housing area of Ely State Prison, Ely, Nevada, for the duration of this action. Ely State Prison is a locked down prison where inmates are not allowed go to the law library, or permitted to walk around on the housing units freely. When they are allowed out of their cells it’s only to go to the yard or shower; they are handcuffed and escorted and it is not likely guards are going to allow them to stop and read the postings. If they are in the infirmary, it may not be posted where they can see it. With this in mind, it is very important that every inmate housed inside Ely State Prison knows about this class action lawsuit. If you have any questions please feel free to contact Amy Fettig, National Prison Project of the ACLU, 915 15th Street, NW — 7th Floor, Washington, DC 20005.


Riker v. Gibbons, Civil Action No. 3:08-CV-00115-LRH-RAM.
If you are a prisoner at Ely State Prison, a class action
lawsuit may affect your rights.
The Federal Court authorized this notice.

* Prisoners have sued prison officials and other state officials in federal court, alleging inadequate medical care at Ely State Prison (ESP) in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

* The Federal Court has allowed the lawsuit to proceed as a class action on behalf of “All prisoners who are now, or in the future will be, in the custody of the Nevada Department of Corrections at Ely State Prison in Ely, Nevada.” If you are a prisoner at Ely State Prison, you are a member of this class.

* The Federal Court has not decided whether or not prison officials and other state officials (“the Defendants”) have done anything to violate the rights of the prisoners (“the Plaintiffs”) to adequate medical care. The Plaintiffs’ lawyers must prove their claims against the Defendants at a trial. The United States District Court for the District of Nevada is overseeing this class action.

* The lawsuit is known as Riker v. Gibbons, Civil Action No. 3:08-CV-00115-LRH-RAM.

1. What is this lawsuit about?

This lawsuit claims that the Defendants are violating the constitutional rights of prisoners at
ESP by failing to provide prisoners with access to care for their serious medical needs.

2. What are the Plaintiffs asking for?

The Plaintiffs in this case have asked only for injunctive relief, not for money damages.
Injunctive relief means that if Plaintiffs win the lawsuit, the Court will order the Defendants
to provide access to care for prisoners’ serious medical needs. This class action does not
seek money damages.

3. Am I part of this Class?

All prisoners who are currently incarcerated at ESP are members of the class and any
prisoner who is transferred to ESP in the future will also be part of the class. You are a
member of the class only while you are incarcerated at Ely. If you are transferred out of ESP
or released from ESP, you will no longer be a member of the class.

4. Do I have to participate in this lawsuit?

No. Unless you are a named plaintiff, you are not required to participate in this lawsuit in
any way. Note that if you do not participate in the lawsuit, but you are still a prisoner at ESP,
any changes in medical care ordered by the Court will still apply to you.

5. Do I have a lawyer in this case?

The Court has appointed the National Prison Project of the ACLU, the ACLU of Nevada, and
the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP to represent all class members in this case. These
lawyers are called “Class Counsel.” You will not owe class counsel any money for their
services in this case.

If you want to communicate with Class Counsel about this case, you may write to them at the
following address:
Amy Fettig
National Prison Project of the ACLU
915 15th Street, NW — 7th Floor
Washington, DC 20005

6. Should I get my own lawyer?

You do not need to hire your own lawyer to be part of this class action lawsuit for injunctive
relief because Class Counsel is working on your behalf. If you want your own lawyer, you
can have a lawyer enter an appearance in this case on your behalf. You will likely have to
pay that lawyer, however.

Class Counsel cannot represent you in any damages case. If you want to sue Defendants for damages, you cannot do so in this Class Action lawsuit. If you wish to bring a damages case you will need to first follow the rules of the Nevada Department of Corrections for
exhausting administrative remedies.

This Notice will be posted in the law library, infirmary, and each housing
area for the duration of this action, by order of the
United States District Court.




DAVID RIKER et al., Plaintiffs,


JAMES GIBBONS et al., Defendants


Pursuant to the Court’s Order, dated March 31, 2009 [Dkt. #40], the parties submit the attached stipulated class notice to be posted in the law library, infirmary, and each housing area of Ely State Prison, Ely, Nevada, for the duration of this action. See Attachment A.

Dated: April 30, 2009

Respectfully Submitted,


DATED this 5th day of May, 2009


Emailed to MTWT by Amy Fettig of the National Prison Project of the ACLU in Washington, DC.

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