Home > Uncategorized > Jaan Laaman’s legacy of prison reform – posted 8/22/2021

Jaan Laaman’s legacy of prison reform – posted 8/22/2021

I saw that after 37 years behind bars Jaan Laaman was released from federal prison. The name Jaan Laaman would likely not be known by younger people but there are some older people who might remember.

Laaman was a 1960’s radical. He grew up in a blue collar family in Roxbury, Massachusetts and later in Buffalo, New York. Early on, he developed a sense of solidarity with black people. As a teenager he got locked up for a non-political crime. He did some time in prison and he said he became more aware of what life was like for victims of the capitalist system.

Upon his release, he later went to Cornell and UNH and he joined Students for a Democratic Society, the radical student organization of that era. He became a full-time activist and he supported the Black Liberation and anti-war movements.

In 1971, he spoke at an anti-war rally. The authorities charged him with a parole violation for his talk and they sent him to Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Laaman served a period of time at Attica before the September 1971 prison riot. There he met Sam Melville, another radical.

Melville had been party to multiple bombings of government and corporate offices. He was linked to the Weather Underground. Melville was one of the leaders of the Attica uprising. He was seen alive after the uprising was put down by the state police but two days later his name showed up on a list of prisoners killed during the riot. Thirty three prisoners and ten hostages died.

It is hard to know how much Melville’s example affected Laaman. He was close to Melville. Possibly he was already connected to underground clandestine work.

After Laaman got out, he again got into trouble. In 1972, the police arrested him for bombing a Richard Nixon for President Headquarters building and a police station in New Hampshire. No one was injured in these bombings except Laaman who hurt his hand. The state convicted Laaman for the bombings and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

He won early release in 1978 after winning on appeal. He served over five years in New Hampshire State Prison.

During his time in the New Hampshire State Prison, Laaman shook the place. He brought seven legal actions against the prison. The Court described Laaman as an “able, prolific and often successful jailhouse lawyer”. Laaman operated a legal clinic for prisoners. In a published opinion, the Court went on about Laaman:

“He has served as an elected inmate representative since 1973 when he helped establish a formal grievance procedure, and has continuously acted informally as a spokesperson and mediator for other prisoners. He has been an officer in the New England Prisoners’ Association and has attempted to establish a prisonwide newspaper at NHSP…Laaman is popular among the inmates and evidences a genuine concern for them…He writes personal letters for the semi-literate, speaks on behalf of men who can’t talk, and demands the things he feels are right and needed.”

Laaman’s case turned into a class action, Laaman v Helgemoe, to improve the living conditions, treatment and programs available at the New Hampshire State Prison. In 1975, Federal Judge Hugh Bownes appointed New Hampshire Legal Assistance as counsel for the prisoners. A number of pro see individual cases were consolidated into the case.

Legal Assistance challenged the totality of prison conditions including visitation and mail privileges, work, education and rehabilitation opportunities, medical care, harassment of the named plaintiffs and overall conditions and practices. It was an everything but the kitchen sink lawsuit.

Judge Bownes ruled that the conditions and treatment accorded prisoners at NHSP violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court entered a comprehensive order to address the many unconstitutional conditions at NHSP. In a section of the court order entitled “Debilitating Conditions”, Judge Bownes wrote:

“..Deep anger and hatred of the society that relegates prisoners in the name of reform to cages with nothing to do, frustration and hostility engendered by false promises, and the loss of pride and self-esteem inherent in such a degrading experience spawn antiauthoritarian and often violent criminal behavior. Time at NHSP costs a man more than part of his life; it robs him of his skills, his ability to cope with society in a civilized manner, and, most importantly, his essential human dignity. Degeneration is hastened at NHSP by the impediments placed in the way of inmates who try to gain something positive during their imprisonment.”

A 38 page consent decree approved by the judge ordered creation and implementation of a classification system, protection for inmates from violence and aggression, adequate sanitation, medical care and mental health care, and meaningful vocational and educational opportunities. The Court recognized that idleness was negative and found a requirement that inmates obtain rehabilitation opportunities.

For over three decades, New Hampshire Legal Assistance continued to vigorously enforce the terms of the consent decree. Consent decrees are not self-executing. Without vigorous enforcement, things backslide.

I do not think it is appreciated now how significant the Laaman case has been. Before Laaman and cases in other states like it, federal courts had a hands-off approach and prisoners’ rights were very narrowly circumscribed. A very punitive mentality reigned both in the courts and prisons.

This was captured by George Jackson, the prison writer and revolutionary, who wrote in his book Soledad Brother:

“Most [prison] policy is formulated in a bureau that operates under the heading Department of Corrections. But what can we say about these asylums since none of the inmates are ever cured. Since in every instance they are sent out of the prisons more damaged physically and mentally than when they entered. Because that is the reality.”

Judicial attitudes did change in response to prisoners’ efforts to improve conditions through litigation. While the Laaman case did not create a constitutional right to rehabilitation, it did recognize that inmates had a right to be incarcerated in conditions which did not threaten their sanity and were not counterproductive to their efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

After Laaman got out of NHSP, he moved to Boston and he worked as a community organizer. He opposed South African apartheid and U.S. imperialism in Central America. He helped organize the Amandla music festival held at Harvard Stadium in July 1979 where Bob Marley and the Wailers headlined.

Laaman later went underground again. The police charged him with seditious conspiracy although that charge did not go forward. He ended up convicted of five bombings, one attempted bombing and criminal conspiracy. Sentenced to 53 years in prison, he served 37 years.

In his last prison stint, Laaman taught meditation classes and yoga. As a yoga practitioner, he initiated a yoga class for people with disabilities, those with limited mobility and those wheelchair-bound.

Progressives now seem more about prison abolition and ending mass incarceration than they do about improving conditions of people still confined.

I think that is a mistake because so many remain incarcerated. The Laaman consent decree helped to break the cycle of incarceration and offered vocational opportunities that helped re-entry to society. Back in 1977 there were 261 prisoners in NHSP. In 2020 there were 2283. The provisions of the Laaman consent decree have helped countless inmates. That is an undeniable legacy.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Ronni Wise
    August 22, 2021 at 8:53 pm

    Thanks, Jon.

    Sent from my iPhone


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