A Jail Like a Slave Ship


People get the death penalty not for committing the worst crime but for the misfortune of having the worst lawyer. —Steve Bright, director, Southern Center for Human Rights

As a reporter, I’ve gotten to know a number of men and women who have battled, against huge odds, to make sure the Bill of Rights comes alive for the most abandoned and hidden Americans.

Among the most persistent and unyielding of these constitutionalists is Steve Bright. With his equally determined colleagues at Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights, he has saved the the lives of prisoners on death row. He was also instrumental in bringing national exposure to Texas governor George W. Bush’s unyielding opposition to competent lawyers for indigent defendants—as well as to Bush’s indifference toward attorneys who slept during the trials of clients charged with capital offenses.

On October 18 in Washington, the Southern Center for Human Rights will celebrate its 25th anniversary, with Georgia congressman John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, as keynote speaker. Others will be honored at this Frederick Douglass Awards dinner, but I want to describe just part of what Steve Bright—who refuses to take any government money for the center because he wants no strings attached—accomplishes continually.

In May, the center, along with a team of Alabama attorneys, secured the acquittal of Gary Wayne Drinkard, who had been on death row for more than five years. As the center’s current issue of Human Rights Report points out: “At Mr. Drinkard’s first trial, his court-appointed lawyers did not even call a witness who would have testified that he was at home at the time of the crime.” Investigators led by the center’s Kate Weisburd presented evidence that Drinkard was indeed at home that night.

On being freed, Drinkard said of his years on death row: “I thought I was dying every day that I was there.”

Also this year, Bright and Alabama lawyer John Russell brought a class-action suit against the sheriff of Morgan County in Decatur, Alabama, along with the county commission, the Alabama Department of Corrections, and the governor of Alabama. The result is recounted in the summer edition of Human Rights Report.

“After walking through each cell block in the Morgan County Jail . . . and hearing testimony from inmates at hearings on March 14 and April 12, 2001, U.S. District Court Judge U.W. Clemon entered an emergency order stating:

” ‘The sardine-can appearance of its cells more nearly resembles the holding units of slave ships during the Middle Passage of the 18th century than anything in the 21st century.’ ”

The judge called conditions in that jail “uncivilized, medieval, and barbaric.” Built for 96 inmates, Morgan County Jail had jammed in over 300.

In his emergency order, Judge Clemon ordered more than half the inmates removed within 30 days. The center reports that he commanded the sheriff and county officials “to address immediately the jail’s inadequate medical and mental health, poor ventilation and sanitation, and fire hazards.”

At one of the hearings before Judge Clemon, there was testimony about a “woman who was bipolar [and] had been denied medication by the jail on the theory that her mental illness was a preexisting condition” for which the jail was not responsible. “Because she was suicidal, she was thrown into a cold, dark, bare observation room and stripped of her clothing. She was also maced by officers at least three times.”

I am in constant debt to Steve Bright, and not only for the stories, legal briefs, court decisions, and investigative reports he has sent me all these years, which have formed the basis for stories I’ve written here and in legal publications.

When I get thoroughly disgusted at the caliber of the political “leaders” in both parties—both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have been ardent executioners and serial violators of the Bill of Rights—Steve Bright helps keep me going. If he can actually and continually get justice done, how can I, a mere journalist, get discouraged?

I thought of Steven when I read Murray Weiss’s August 19 New York Post story: “The bottom-line reason Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik has announced he won’t remain the city’s top cop when Rudy Giuliani leaves office [is] he doesn’t want to meet with [Al] Sharpton or any of the other community activists and politicos who regularly have bashed the NYPD, even with the astonishing decline in crime in recent years.”

Kerik, according to Murray Weiss, believes that whoever becomes the next mayor will force him “to go against his true feelings” by meeting with Sharpton and other such clamorous critics of the NYPD. Good heavens, “even Peter Vallone, who has the strongest support from the city’s police unions, has backed an independent police monitor.”

He’s not the only one. So do the New York Civil Liberties Union and thousands of New Yorkers, including those who have been stopped, frisked, and strip-searched by the police.

Murray Weiss writes: “In the end, Kerik, the city’s 40th police commissioner, looked in the mirror and knew that his time was under Giuliani.”

As police commissioners go, Bernard Kerik has been a big improvement over his predecessor, Howard Safir. But he has now revealed himself to place fear of future discomfiture over what he could have done to bring more community policing into being, raise the morale of officers by lessening their alienation from those they serve, and demonstrate that a police commissioner can do justice to all, including cops.

A mensch would publicly stand up to any future mayor who ordered him to forgo his “true feelings.” But what “true feelings” are involved here? Al Sharpton has First Amendment rights, and so do all the other critics of the NYPD. Is Kerik’s confidence in his ability to deal with criticism so fragile that he can’t deal with dissent?

Steve Bright meets continually with hostile and powerful Southern sheriffs, wardens, governors, county commissioners, attorney generals, and mayors. He doesn’t flinch.