Blog of Rights


Will Matthews is the senior communications officer at the ACLU of Northern California, where he leads the strategic communications component of a statewide ACLU campaign to reform California’s criminal justice system. Previously he was the senior media relations associate at the ACLU’s national office in New York, where he primarily worked on the ACLU’s campaign to reduce over-incarceration. A graduate of Chapman University in Orange, Calif, and the recipient of the Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt University, Matthews formerly was an award-winning investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Immigrant Deaths Expose Need For Systemic Overhaul

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 2:02pm
In a front-page story last Sunday, the New York Times reported that internal government documents show how top government officials, many of whom remain in place in the Obama administration, carried out an intentional campaign of obfuscation to try and hide the brutal mistreatment of immigration detainees that has contributed to 107 in-custody deaths since late 2003. The documents were obtained by both the paper and the ACLU from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The ACLU filed a FOIA lawsuit in 2008 demanding access to any and all documents and information in the government’s possession related to the deaths of detainees at immigration detention centers — the patchwork system of privately run jails, federal prisons and county facilities the government uses to hold undocumented immigrants while it tries to deport them.

The ACLU and Religion: Don't Believe Everything You Read On the Internet

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 2:59pm

A malicious and factually inaccurate e-mail accusing the ACLU of not standing solidly on the side of religious liberty – an e-mail that was first circulated six years ago – has once again reared its ugly head and popped up in the e-mail inboxes…

The Dirty Little Secret of Deaths in Detention

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 3:32pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

In today’s New York Times, reporter Nina Bernstein authors a compelling narrative about Ahmad Tanveer, a Pakistani New Yorker whose 2005 death was only publicly revealed today — nearly four years after he passed away in anonymity at the Monmouth County Correctional Facility in Freehold, N.J.. Despite efforts by a number of news organizations and groups like the ACLU to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to release any and all information in their possession about every detainee who has died in their custody, Tanveer’s case was not uncovered until the ACLU sued for information, and the Times diligently pushed hard for the truth. As Bernstein writes in her piece today, Tanveer’s case “underscores the secrecy and lack of legal accountability that continue to shield [our nation’s immigration detention] system from independent oversight.”

The Times’ story today is the direct result of thousands of documents obtained by the ACLU from ICE and other Department of Homeland Security entities through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in June 2007, and a subsequent lawsuit filed one year later. Tom Jawetz, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Prison Project, has spent months poring through the documents and analyzing what they reveal — including Tanveer’s previously unknown death. We worked with Bernstein to cultivate this story, which includes some very strong original reporting that shows how it is that the death of a man in the custody of the U.S. government could so easily slip through the cracks. For years, ICE has been allowed to create a makeshift system of immigration detention centers across the country with little to no oversight, and no mandate for accountability or transparency. The result: hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year are thrown into detention facilities where they live for weeks, months and in some cases even years on end with little contact with the outside world. They have no access to adequate medical care, even in the face of life or death emergencies.

ACLU and ADF: Protecting Prisoners' Rights Together

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 4:28pm

As the New York Times reported this week, the ACLU and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) — a conservative Christian organization that is currently promoting a publication entitled The ACLU vs. America — are typically on opposite sides of contentious issues like religious expression in schools and same-sex marriage.

But there is at least one thing that we can agree upon: the right of federal prisoners to have access to religious material while in prison.

David Shapiro of the ACLU's National Prison Project and the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office on Tuesday filed formal comments opposing a proposed rule by the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) that would illegally empower prison officials to ban vital religious works from prison chapel libraries. The proposed rule, which would allow material to be banned based on a determination that it "could…suggest" violence or criminal behavior, directly contradicts the Second Chance Act, a law passed last year which places strict limits on what material BOP officials may outlaw.

The comments were signed by a group of religious organizations that included the American Jewish Congress, Muslim Advocates and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. And in a one-page letter submitted to the BOP Tuesday, ADF said, "ADF concurs with the vast majority of comments submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union today — a somewhat remarkable statement given that we often do not agree with the ACLU."

See that — even supposed enemies can find ways to be friends.

Death Penalty in the U.S.: Desmond Tutu Asks "Why?"

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 1:01pm

(Originally posted on Daily Kos.)

The venerable Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, can still remember a day from his childhood growing up in the abject poverty of a South African township when he happened to stumble upon a tattered old copy of Ebony magazine.

Inside that particular issue were stories and images of a man named Jackie Robinson, and of a baseball team called the Brooklyn Dodgers, stories and images that Tutu says were captivating for a young man who wasn't normally allowed to dream very far beyond the seemingly hopeless segregation that defined the world in which he lived.

"I didn't know baseball from ping-pong," the man who would grow up to become the primary architect of South Africa's historic Truth and Reconciliation Commission said last week in front of an audience at the Riverside Church in New York City, one of the nation's most prominent Protestant cathedrals. "But that didn't matter. I can't tell you how meaningful it was for me to know that someone who looked like me could overcome such obstacles and play Major League Baseball."

And so began a love affair with the United States, the country that for Tutu and his contemporaries symbolized hope and the promise of equality, and which was equally epitomized by the exploits of the heavyweight prize fighter Joe Louis and the resilient spirit of the civil rights movement.

"All of us kids knew by heart the Gettysburg Address," Tutu said.


By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 2:40pm

It's a long way from Capshaw, Ala., home of the Limestone Prison, to hosting your own national cable television program from a swanky studio in the heart of New York City.

Most everyone by now knows Rachel Maddow as the host of the nightly…

Shining a Light on In-Custody Deaths

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 6:19pm

(Originally posted on DailyKos.)

The New York Times today reported the latest death of a person in immigrant detention. Guido R. Newbrough, 48, was a construction worker born in Germany but who lived in the United States for the last…

Death by Harsh Sentencing and Deliberate Indifference

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 12:32pm

As Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King rightly points out in a 2004 column, Jonathan Magbie's death four years ago was unlike those of so many other young, African-American men in Washington D.C. He wasn't gunned down or stabbed on the streets,…

Arizonans Deserves Better

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 8:20pm

Perhaps nothing better crystallizes the significance of yesterday's landmark judicial ruling mandating that infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio take a number of concrete and substantive steps to improve the conditions and level of health care delivered to prisoners at the Maricopa County Jail then a letter received by the ACLU of Arizona from a criminal justice and sociology professor in southern Kentucky.

The professor begins his letter by making clear that he has never been much of a fan of the ACLU. He writes that he’s a supporter of the death penalty and that he believes we often are too soft on the inmates in our nation’s prisons and jails. But then he acknowledges that a vast majority of the prisoners that spend time behind bars at some point or another return to their communities, that, as a result, rehabilitation needs to be a primary aspect of incarceration and that increased education and enhanced mental health for prisoners are in fact achievable goals if the taxpayer money used to lock them up was used effectively.

“In this case, you all are bringing attention to a bad situation that has been going on for too long,” the professor writes.

Bad Hair Day?

By Will Matthews, ACLU of Northern California at 4:21pm

"A.A." is a 5-year-old kindergartner in Needville, Texas. Last Friday, a Texas judge ordered A.A. back to school after weeks of being denied that opportunity.

The trouble all started on his first day of school last month, when…

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