This April, Congress granted New York City dramatic, unexpected, and most welcome relief from federal court control of the city's prisons. Under the new Prison Litigation Reform Act, federal courts must terminate court orders in prison litigation after two years, unless the court finds additional relief necessary to correct violations of federal law. (We called for term limits on all court decrees against cities in "Government by Decree," City Journal, Summer 1994.) The law further restricts federal judges to issuing injunctions that only correct violations of federal law that prisoners have actually proved.
To wrest control of prisons from local governments, prisoners'-rights groups have followed the strategy of establishing violations of the Constitution and then parlaying those violations into sweeping consent decrees that deal with a wide range of issues far beyond what even the most active judicial imagination could consider constitutional violations. In the 1975 case Benjamin v. Jacobson, prisoners’-rights groups obtained a decree against the City of New York that regulates almost every aspect of prison management, including telephone access for inmates, the cleaning of toilets and windows, and the quality of food. The decree places the judge and the plaintiff lawyers squarely in control of prison management, laying out exacting rules that the city must follow, requiring regular reports to the judge and to plaintiffs’ lawyers, and establishing a monitoring operation—for which the city must pay $500,000 a year—to review prison conditions.
The city can’t change how it runs its prisons without getting the court's approval, and winning that approval almost always requires expensive and time-consuming litigation. In the past two years the city has had to seek federal court permission to change the court-ordered protocol for providing hot food for inmates, to ban gang jewelry, and to provide law books to violent prisoners in their cells rather than in the prison library. None of the city's proposals violated the Constitution, but all required the interference of a federal judge. With prisons in 33 states under similar court orders, Congress has now wisely set a national standard that will return control to local officials.
Judge Harold Baer Jr., who now oversees the Benjamin case, has asked the city and plaintiffs for briefs discussing the implications of the federal reform for the existing consent decrees. The Legal Aid Society will argue that overturning the decrees is unconstitutional. In the meantime, the city has moved to vacate all the directives regulating its management of the prisons. Whatever Judge Baer's decision, he is unlikely to have the last word on the matter. The New York case has moved with unexpected speed and is a prime candidate to be the U.S. Supreme Court’s test case for the new federal law.