August 10th, 2021Dylan Lee

Health is Justice Litigation Hub: A Tool for Advocates and Researchers

How can I find Sixth Circuit cases in which people were released from immigration detention due to COVID?

Where can I do free research about women in BOP custody who have filed for compassionate release in federal court based on their specific medical conditions, like hypertension or asthma?  

These are just some of the many research questions that can now be answered using our Health is Justice Litigation Hub. A searchable database of court decisions and legal filings relating to the pandemic behind bars, the project is a collaboration between the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project, Zealous, the Center for Institutional and Social Change at Columbia Law School, and the Bronx Defenders. 

The Litigation Hub contains a wide array of legal documents revealing the slow, inefficient, and often deadly inaction by the criminal legal system to respond to a virus that has taken a tremendous toll on those in its custody. It also contains a number of likely life-saving court decisions and filings ordering release, decarceration, and other forms of relief — documents that we hope will support attorneys, advocates, and incarcerated plaintiffs across the country seeking to bolster their own cases for court intervention against the deadly health risks of incarceration. 

The Hub began in the early days of the pandemic. As the virus spread within facilities and across jurisdictions, there was no coordinated national effort to decarcerate jail and prison populations, and few efforts at the state and local level. Individual plaintiffs and litigators were forced to file emergency complaints, petitions, and requests for relief through whatever limited legal mechanisms were available. 

To create a centralized resource for advocates to find favorable case law and for judges to monitor legal developments from across the country, our small team of volunteers began tracking  cases addressing issues concerning COVID behind bars and coding them based on how courts responded to the legal questions raised by the pandemic. We were not alone in doing so — a number of other groups were similarly working to coordinate legal responses to the rapidly growing crisis. By late summer 2020, several groups that had had the same idea came together to form the Litigation Hub.  

The growing searchable database contains over 500 publicly available court opinions and legal documents, summarized and coded for by characteristics such as a petitioner’s specific pre-existing medical conditions, legal authorities cited by courts in their decisions, and specific facilities where people are incarcerated, among many others. When coding these documents, the team has taken special care to center the lived experiences of incarcerated individuals and to avoid stigmatizing and dehumanizing language. This ethos is integral to the mission of the Litigation Hub, as we not only seek to document  how courts are responding to the pandemic, but also to highlight how incarcerated individuals have experienced the very real impacts of those decisions.  

The database is particularly useful for litigators looking for court opinions with specific characteristics, or seeking to identify trends and patterns that can inform their own legal arguments. For example, advocates can search for federal court decisions related to people who are incarcerated at FCI Elkton and have type 2 diabetes or compassionate release cases where the petitioner served less than a third of their sentence. 

Our database also serves as a record, being built in real time, documenting how courts across the country have (and have) not responded to the pandemic. The opinions and legal filings recorded in the database allow current and future researchers, journalists, academics and any other interested parties to make sense of what has happened to incarcerated plaintiffs in the courts during this unprecedented global health crisis, and to further advocate for decarceration efforts and for the more humane treatment of people living behind bars. We hope it serves to provide an integrated picture of how decision-makers in various roles and jurisdictions have responded to the pandemic, and the relationship between those decisions and the effects on people who are incarcerated. 

Access to the Litigation Hub is free. Anyone interested in making use of it may sign up for login credentials here, with one caveat: because our database has been compiled with the aim of helping to ameliorate the unsafe and unhealthy in which people are forced to live in custody and to facilitate the release of as many people as possible, we made the decision to restrict access only to users who are working to advocate on behalf of people who are incarcerated or who are conducting research on incarcerated populations.

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August 12th, 2021Erika Tyagi and Joshua Manson

Prison Staff are Refusing Vaccines. Incarcerated People are Paying the Price.

With COVID-19 case numbers rising across the country, prisons workers remain largely unvaccinated, but agencies are doubling down on restrictions for incarcerated people.