For immediate release: Dec. 22, 2020
Media contact: Sarah Palermo, firstname.lastname@example.org
Court: The state must honor its commitment to protect health of inmates
A change in state law and a November state Supreme Court ruling will ensure that people held in the New Hampshire Prison for Men in Concord continue to receive the critical health and safety protections the state promised in a decades-old legal settlement and that the rights of Granite Staters in settlements will continue to be protected.
“The best takeaway from this is that when the state makes a deal, they can and should be held to live up that deal,” said NH Legal Assistance attorney Elliott Berry, who helped negotiate the 1983 class action settlement on behalf of male prisoners. “It’s really as basic as that.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling addressed several allegations made by an inmate, Clifford Avery. Avery claimed that the New Hampshire Department of Corrections (DOC) was violating a previous agreement when it failed to provide critical health related services including filling inmates’ prescriptions in a timely manner and providing required counseling services. Avery also alleged that the DOC failed to repair a dangerous ventilation issue and stop wastewater from seeping into the prison’s kitchen.
The recent success is the result of two related efforts led by a coalition of organizations and NH state legislators. New Hampshire Legal Assistance, Disability Rights Center-NH, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire worked with policy makers to amend a state law to clarify that a party to a settlement agreement or other contracts with the state can bring a lawsuit to compel the state to carry out its promises, rather than just sue for monetary damages. The coalition also filed an amicus brief in the state Supreme Court case. Specifically, the Court considered whether Avery could hold the state accountable to the terms of the 1983 settlement.
In its decision, which cited the amended law, the court said: “[T]he functionality of state institutions depends on the trust and confidence of New Hampshire citizens. Allowing the State to disregard its contractual obligations would undermine this trust.”
“We are pleased with the Court’s decision and gratified that the state’s claim of sovereign immunity failed,” said Stephanie Patrick, executive director of Disability Rights Center-NH. “The decision makes clear that parties to settlements will continue to be able to hold the state accountable for the terms of those settlements.”
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said, “This decision underscores that residents of the state prison in Concord have a right to seek judicial relief concerning the health and safety protections that the state promised them.”
About New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA)
New Hampshire Legal Assistance is a state-wide non-profit law firm providing civil legal services to low-income and older New Hampshire residents who cannot afford a lawyer. Typical clients are victims of domestic violence, veterans, and people with disabilities trying to access their benefits, as well as people who have faced discriminatory housing policies and practices. NHLA maintains offices in Berlin, Claremont, Concord, Manchester, and Portsmouth. Connect with NHLA on Twitter and Facebook. For more information about NHLA, visit nhla.org.
About Disability Rights Center-NH
Disability Rights Center-NH is New Hampshire’s designated Protection and Advocacy system and is dedicated to eliminating barriers existing in New Hampshire to the full and equal enjoyment of civil and other legal rights by people with disabilities. More information about DRC-NH can be found at www.drcnh.org.
About American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire (ACLU-NH) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to preserving the individual rights and liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. ACLU-NH, founded in 1968 by a small group of devoted civil libertarians, is one of 53 affiliates of the ACLU Nationwide. Today the National ACLU is comprised of more than 1,500,000 members. For more information about ACLU-NH, visit aclunh.org.