Alvin Bronstein, a civil rights and civil liberties lawyer who led a decades-long legal campaign that was credited with bringing sweeping improvements to prison conditions across the U,.S., died Oct. 24 at 87, the Washington Post. Bronstein led the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project for more than two decades, from its founding in 1972 until 1996. He was known as one of the most forceful advocates for changes to the criminal justice system and in 1989 received a MacArthur Fellowship, the prestigious award often called a “genius grant.” The son of Eastern European immigrants, Bronstein traced his sense of morality and fairness to his relatives' experience of anti-Semitic persecution during pogroms. “You hear these kinds of things about injustice and you begin to have a perpetual sense of outrage about injustice wherever you hear it or see it,” he said.
The violent insurrection at New York’s Attica correctional facility in 1971 helped galvanize a movement for prison reform, and the next year the National Prison Project was established. Under Bronstein's leadership, the group filed lawsuits in dozens of states challenging the conditions to which prisoners were subjected. An early case was in Alabama, where crowding was so severe that prisoners slept atop urinal troughs. While mainly focused on forcing large-scale overhauls, Bronstein and his colleagues also achieved victories on an individual level. In 1979, they reached a settlement of $518,000 on behalf of a Virginia inmate who became paralyzed after what was described as inadequate medical treatment. At the time, the Washington Post called the settlement “the largest sum ever granted to a prisoner for mistreatment in an American prison.” A decade after the National Prison Project was founded, prisons in Washington, D.C., and in 28 states were declared “illegally cruel and unusual” and were being run under court order. In 10 states, massive changes had been ordered.