ACLU National Prison Project

Document Date: October 24, 2012

The ACLU National Prison Project is dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, and other places of detention comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and international human rights principles, and to ending the policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. We promote a fair and effective criminal justice system in which incarceration is used only as a last resort, and its purpose is to prepare prisoners for release and a productive, law-abiding life at the earliest possible time. Through litigation, advocacy, and public education, we work to ensure that conditions of confinement are consistent with health, safety, and human dignity, and that prisoners retain all rights of free persons that are not inconsistent with incarceration. Achieving these goals will result in a criminal justice system that respects individual rights and increases public safety for everyone, at greatly reduced fiscal cost.

Our goals include:

Substantially reducing the incarcerated population, especially among people of color, people with mental disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. The human and financial costs of mass incarceration are staggering, and the burden falls disproportionately on the poor and people of color. However, the current fiscal crisis and years of falling crime rates have combined to create the best opportunity in decades to challenge our nation’s addiction to incarceration.

Increasing public accountability and transparency of jails, prisons, and other places of detention. Because places of detention are inherently closed environments housing the unpopular and the politically powerless, external oversight is critical to guard against mistreatment and abuse. The increasing privatization of detention, which creates financial incentives for both increased incarceration and harsher conditions of confinement, has made public accountability even more important. The federal Prison Litigation Reform Act and its state analogs have significantly reduced judicial oversight of prisons, jails, and juvenile facilities, and resulted in serious abuses going unchecked.

Ending cruel, inhuman, and degrading conditions of confinement. Far too many prisoners are held in conditions that daily threaten their health, safety, and human dignity. Denial of adequate medical and mental health care, basic sanitation, and protection from physical and sexual assault are all too common. Tens of thousands of prisoners are held in long-term solitary confinement. The devastating effects of such treatment, particularly on persons with mental illness, are well known.

Expanding prisoners’ freedom of religion, expression, and association. Prisoners’ rights to read, write, speak, practice their religion, and communicate with the outside world are often curtailed far beyond what is necessary for institutional security. Not only are these activities central to the ability of prisoners to retain their humanity, they also contribute to the flow of information between prisons and the outside world and thus provide a vital form of oversight of these closed institutions.

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