Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York
Cordially Invites You to a Reception
Wednesday, May 9, 2018
5:30 - 7:30 p.m.
Debevoise & Plimpton, 919 Third Avenue, New York, NY



​​Good evening, and thanks to all of you for coming.  I’m John Kiernan, Chair of the Prisoners Legal Services Board, and it’s a pleasure to welcome you all to this New York City debutante party of sorts for PLS.  We’ve gotten all scrubbed up and are pleased to have this opportunity to introduce ourselves to some of you and to greet some of our organization’s good longtime friends.

We wanted to have this event because now feels like an exciting time for partisans of prisoners’ rights generally, as many of you here tonight are, and for PLS in particular.  Those of you who have been focused on prisoners’ rights, and maybe everyone here, undoubtedly share the recognition that while long periods sometimes pass when the world pays little attention to the condition and position of prisoners, long viewed as among society’s most despised members, the last few years have witnessed a surge in public interest in this subject. 

The public imagination, and politicians on both sides of the aisle, have become captivated by the apparent incongruity of the U.S.’s position as the most prolific imprisoner of any nation in the world, with 4.5% of the world’s population and 22% of its prisoners.  Experiments with reduced punishments and earlier release of prisoners with overlong sentences, decriminalization of minor offenses, rethinking of bail when it leads to jailing unconvicted people simply because they can’t afford the modest conditions that others with more resources can obtain freedom by satisfying, diversion to social services or treatment programs of people who are better candidates for drug or mental health treatment than prisons, and other efforts have resulted in radical reductions of the numbers of people in jails and prisons.  And, significantly, crime rates have fallen rather than risen concurrently with this huge reduction in prison populations. 

With regard to conditions inside the prisons, the public and new thinkers about Corrections are paying attention in unprecedented ways to the unspeakable cruelty of managing prison order by placing people who present identified disciplinary problems in total solitude in small boxes for months or years, the unfairnesses associated with New York prisons’ position as the State’s primary residence for our mentally ill citizens, the inappropriateness of treating young adolescents as career criminals and effectively predetermining their futures based on conduct they engaged in as teenagers, and the full range of harshnesses, sometimes escalating to intolerable abuse that has nevertheless been tolerated, by corrections officers inadequately trained in focusing on rehabilitation and preparation for reentry and inadequately disciplined when they engage in misconduct.

Prisoners’ Legal Services has been focused intensely on this basic humanitarian challenge since its formation in 1976, in the wake of the Attica riots and the recognition that prisoners had become socially invisible, with literally no outlet for vindication of denials of their legal and human rights.  Our longtime spectacular Executive Director Karen Murtagh and our great board member John Dunne will tell you a little about our history and current activities in a minute, but let me just offer a big picture perspective.  The advancement of prisoners’ rights is ultimately a matter of getting the attention of fair-minded people and telling prisoners’ stories of mistreatment or deprivation credibly.  PLS has sought to do just that for its entire existence.  One of the most remarkable developments of recent years has been the degree to which Karen and our state’s extraordinarily thoughtful Acting Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Anthony Annucci, have earned each other’s trust.  While everyone understands that PLS will as a matter of course be adversarial to DOCS on a daily basis, Karen has generated such credibility and Commissioner Annucci has developed such willingness to listen, that some of the most significant changes and other results PLS has accomplished in recent years have come through forceful but fair conversation, bringing the problem effectively to decision-makers’ attention, and advocacy before initiating litigation.  That is not only more efficient than litigation; it is also the model of how public servants should act, recognizing (as the State generally has in its provision of essential funding for PLS) that the Department of Corrections should, and must, fully share PLS’s mission of preventing and remedying injustice to and unfair treatment of prisoners, and maximizing each prisoner’s prospects for success upon reentry.

As Karen will describe, PLS’s record of success in advocacy for prisoners despite constant budget tightness and an undersized staff is nothing short of spectacular.  Much of that record has also been achieved with the assistance of pro bono volunteers, some represented in this room tonight.  Our resources have grown substantially from the low points of our funding, with private assistance providing essential (and in recent years increasingly substantial) supplementation to the modest public funding we receive, but total funding remains well below our institutional high point in the early 1990s.  Our fantastic staff, while relentlessly resourceful about how to provide efficient assistance to the more than 10,000 prisoners who contact us each year, is essentially always swamped with client needs that exceed our capacity to serve them.

We are delighted that you have come tonight and provided us an opportunity to introduce ourselves to you. Can I ask that the PLS board members who are here raise their hands, so we can recognize you and thank you for your service?  Can we do the same for the PLS staff members who are here?

And now, let me tell you just a few things about Karen Murtagh.  Karen is a prisoners’ rights lifer.  When she was 10 years old, she would spend her Saturdays accompanying her father to prisons where he taught weekend courses on prisoners’ constitutional rights to corrections officers.  She always knew what slice of the planet it was her destiny to help, and she has been working wholeheartedly on prisoners’ rights, even in periods when they weren’t getting anything like the attention they have gotten recently, since she got out of law school, including the last nine years as our Executive Director.  There is no more dedicated, effective, thoughtful, decent prisoners’ rights lawyer on the planet.  Let me invite her to speak to you for a few minutes.