In recent years, we have lost several giants in the field of prison reform. We here honor three of them who were especially treasured colleagues and mentors for many of us. We know they would have relished the important conversations happening at this symposium and that they are with us in spirit.

Alvin J. Bronstein

Al Bronstein is the father of American prisoners’ rights law. He was the visionary who saw in the civil rights movement, which drew him to Mississippi in the 1960s, the promise of making equal justice for all a reality. At the beginning of the 1970s, at a time when courts still turned their backs to claims of the incarcerated, Al founded the ACLU’s National Prison Project. With fierce determination, skill, and a great deal of courage, not to mention a dash of charm and good spirit, Al won landmark victories that changed the face of American constitutional law. After 25 years as Director of the National Prison Project, he became a leader in the global movement for prison reform through his work with Penal Reform International. Al also served as co-chair of the ABA’s Task Force on the Legal Status of Prisoners. The National Law Journal listed Al four times as one of the country’s 100 most influential lawyers. The MacArthur Foundation bestowed on him its “genius award” for his contributions to prisoners’ rights and criminal justice reform. Al’s life demonstrates that law can be about justice and that one person can make a difference. We are all in his debt and walk in the path he first saw and began to blaze.

Fred Cohen

Fred Cohen devoted his career to the cause of prison reform. As a law professor, as the founding faculty member of the School of Criminal Justice of the State University of New York- Albany, as a court appointed monitor, as an author of groundbreaking books including the Law of Deprivation of Liberty, The Mentally Disordered Inmate and the Law, and A Practical Guide to Correctional Mental Health Law, as the founder of the Correctional Law Reporter, and the Correctional Mental Health Report, and as a member of the Task Force on the Legal Status of Prisoners which promulgated the current ABA Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, he was a continual and positive advocate for reform. Fred was a loud and forceful campaigner for ending solitary confinement, the greatest shame of the American prison system. He spoke out on this critical issue when few others did. Because of his eloquent insistence that there is a fundamental difference between prison separation and prison isolation, change, however slow and imperfect, is finally happening. To all this work, he brought a powerful intellect and a passion for justice for the forgotten behind prison walls. His life and his contributions to our work enrich us.

Vincent M. Nathan

Perhaps best known for his role as the Special Master appointed by Judge Justice in the legendary Ruiz v. Estelle litigation that overhauled the Texas prison system, Vince Nathan was a lawyer, a law professor, and an expert on court-ordered prison reform. In addition to his role in Texas, he was appointed by federal judges to oversee reforms in the prison systems of Georgia, New Mexico, and Puerto Rico, as well as in some individual jails. Vince had a remarkable ability to do back-room negotiations with governors, attorneys general, corrections directors, and plaintiffs’ attorneys, and to help shape the direction and speed the timeline of reform in each jurisdiction. His dynamic personality and bluster allowed him to banter and drink with East Texas prison wardens, while never losing sight of his goal of improving conditions for the people trapped inside these brutal facilities. He had many proteges in his offices of full-time court monitors, preparing us to be the next generation of experts on court oversight, training us to work with both incarcerated people and administrators, and teaching us to “trust, but verify.” In his article in the 2004 Pace Law Review volume “Prison Reform Revisited: The Unfinished Agenda,” Vince assessed whether courts have made a difference in the quality of prison conditions. He provided a nuanced and balanced analysis, but offered this as his conclusion: “every case in which I become involved is a chilling reminder of how long the road is that lies ahead of us.” And that is where we begin our conference, with a somber recognition that despite our best efforts, “lawful, safe, industrious, and hopeful” prisons are still elusive.
By Michele Deitch and Michael Mushlin
January 2023