Alvin Bronstein, the late director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, anticipated the movement to reduce “mass incarceration” that is widely discussed in today’s criminal justice circles, former colleagues and friends were told at a memorial service yesterday in Washington, D.C.
Bronstein, who filed many lawsuits contesting prison conditions in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, had a “perpetual sense of outrage” about the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” culture that dominated public policy at that time, said Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s current executive director.
While policymakers have focused on the 2.3-million U.S. prison and jail population intensely in recent years, “Al saw that decades ago,” Romero said.
Bronstein died last fall at 87. He helped found the ACLU’s prison unit after the 1971 riots at New York State’s Attica prison, and led it for 25 years.
Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Foundations office in Washington observed that Bronstein was “on the cutting edge of social change” and demonstrated the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement decades before it started.
Associates described Bronstein’s early career doing the “difficult and dangerous work” of a civil rights lawyer in the Deep South in the 1960s. Steven Shapiro, ACLU Legal Director, said that Ku Klux Klan members fired shots to alert Bronstein that they were monitoring his activities when he started legal work in the 1960s in St. Augustine, Fl.
During his long career, Bronstein gave “voice, hope, and rights to people who never had them, both as a matter of fact and a matter of law,” Shapiro said.
Partly because of Bronstein’s persistence on addressing issues of poor prison conditions, “prisons are a lot less awful places than they used to be,” said Michele Deitch of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, a specialist in the oversight of prisons and former court appointed monitor of the Texas prison system.
Stephen Bright, former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said Bronstein was influential far beyond his work at the ACLU. Bright recalled Bronstein’s role in helping him find funding for the center in the early 1980s. The center deals with issues of prison and jail conditions, racial discrimination in the justice system and legal representation for the poor.
Bronstein was also active in prison reform internationally, said Baroness Vivien Stern, a member of the British House of Lords who served with Bronstein on the board of the organization Penal Reform International. Stern described the “historic moment” of Bronstein’s meeting with Russian prisoners while attending a prison reform meeting in Moscow as the Soviet Union was breaking up in the early 1990s.
The ACLU’s National Prison Project remains active, saying it is “dedicated to ensuring that our nation’s prisons, jails, and detention centers comply with the Constitution, domestic law, and human rights principles.” Most recently it has represented detained immigrants' seeking telephone access in California jails while undergoing immigration proceedings.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.