Anti-Racism Daily-Learn about Farmer v. Brennan

  • Nicole Cardoza
  • June 11, 2024
  • Anti-Racism Daily

Learn about Farmer v. Brennan

Good morning and happy Tuesday! June 6, 2024 marked the thirty year anniversary of Farmer v. Brennan, a landmark Supreme Court case in which ruled (in a rare unanimous decision) that a prison official’s “deliberate indifference” to the safety and dignity of someone incarcerated violates the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment.

Today, we’re joined by Dee Farmer herself, who successfully petitioned her case while incarcerated without a lawyer. In our interview, she shares her reflection on this case, the cruelty of the criminal legal system, and what her current advocacy efforts are focused on.

Dee, alongside Jonas Caballero (JDI Survivor Council and Albany Law School) and Cynthia Totten Esq. (Deputy Executive Director of JDI), will be giving the plenary address at the National Sexual Assault Conference this year. They will be speaking to thousands of advocates from around the country about the importance of including incarcerated survivors in their work.

It was truly a pleasure learning about how Dee’s work is evolving and her perspective on Black trans and queer representation in her areas of focus.

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In solidarity,

Take Action

  • Donate to Fight4Justice, Dee Farmer’s organization that fights to gain freedom for those currently and formerly incarcerated; especially those who are LGBTQ+.
  • Read more about the history and significance of Farmer v. Brennan.
  • Share these resources with anyone incarcerated you may know who may want to file a lawsuit.

Get Educated

Photo of Dee wearing a blazer and a colorful dress standing in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. Photo Source: Dee Farmer

Nicole: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Dee. How are you feeling as the thirty-year mark of Farmer v. Brennan approaches?

Dee Farmer: I think I feel the weight. I feel more of the weight of what needs to be done than what was accomplished with Farmer. And that just might be because that’s my job, my daily job.

Nicole: What does that work look like for you today?

Dee: Today, I run Fight4Justice, which primarily focuses on LGBTQ+ issues but also focuses on broader issues that affect the entire prison population, especially their civil rights. I recently won the Haymarket Freedom Fellowship Award, so I’m working with them. We’re trying to dismantle the Prison Litigation Reform Act. I’m also an independent contractor for the Transgender Law Center, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders. I do a lot of work for Georgetown Law School since I graduated from the MORCA program last year.

Nicole: You’re so busy! How are you holding space for all of this work at the same time?

Dee: This is the work that I did in prison for almost 33 years. It was my daily routine. I spent most of my time in the library from morning until night, and I came to enjoy it. So that’s still how I spend most of my time.

Nicole: Tell me a bit about how the Supreme Court case came to be.

Dee: I brought Farmer v. Brennan to court because of the violence I experienced as a teenager in a maximum-security penitentiary. I was raped by an inmate and then placed in segregation for over a year while they were allegedly investigating the incident. I saw there were so many vulnerable inmates in the population who were being abused daily in this population.

When I actually got transferred from that prison, it was just something that stuck in my mind. I realized that prison officials know this is happening to them. They’re putting these people in segregation daily, and they’re leaving them there so long until [those incarcerated] just say, “Okay, I’ll just go back out there until it happens again.” And it’s a revolving door. This stuck with me, and I filed the case to address this issue.

Nicole: And it took about five years for the Supreme Court to review the case, correct? What was it like finding that out?

By the time I filed Farmer v. Brennan, I was established as a jailhouse lawyer. And so, I operated pretty much like attorneys do. I had files for every case that I was working on and I followed the procedure prescribed by the rules. If a case order came in for denial, then I filed a notice of appeal and moved on to the next case.

I didn’t think much about my case until the day I got the letter from the Supreme Court saying that they wanted to see the entire record before they decided whether to accept it. I suspect that’s because, in many cases where prisoners file petitions or complaints, the courts are suspicious that they may be exaggerating their story. When they asked for the full record, it indicated to me that they were very seriously considering the case. That’s when I really got excited about it.

Nicole: This case, among many things, formalized the concept of “deliberate indifference,” a legal term used to describe harassment or failure to provide a prisoner with their human rights. Can you speak more to its significance?

Dee: Whether consciously or not, there are so many ways that prisons operate without considering the consequences of their actions. For example, they strip-search inmates altogether, which deprives them of privacy – and may even encourage someone to assault someone else. I’ve been in the Federal Medical Center and you have inmates in the hospice unit who are unconscious. They have no sense of where they are or what’s going on, and they’re in pain because the prison systems give out as little narcotics as possible. So they’re screaming in pain all night and you hear the machines beeping, but the system says, despite this, it’s still right to let them just lay there, suffer, and die. That’s the kind of system that we live in, unfortunately.

Nicole: Absolutely. Much of what we understand about abolition and the movement against mass incarceration has been led by not just Black people but Black queer and trans people. How often do you feel that Black trans people’s voices are minimized in this conversation?

Dee: I think queer people’s voices in general are minimized. I do a lot of speaking engagements, and if there are two or three Black queer people in the room, including myself, it’s an exception. Even though there’s an effort to make this work more inclusive, I think that that effort is very minimal. There needs to be a stronger attempt.

Nicole: As you mentioned, you’re focusing on dismantling the Prison Litigation Reform Act. How can community members help support those efforts?

People in the community will have to influence Congress to change the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act, which was introduced by Congress to allegedly reduce frivolous litigation by inmates. Of course, I don’t believe that many inmates actually file frivolous litigation. More likely, they lack the knowledge to put forth their claims or express their claims in a way that courts will receive. The court considers them frivolous when it simply doesn’t understand what the inmate is trying to say.

The Prison Litigation Reform Act requires inmates to pay to file a complaint for a violation of their civil rights. So whenever they received any money in their account, a percentage of it had to go towards paying for the lawsuit that they filed. And of course, most prisoners, if they work in the prison, make $20 or $25 a month. If you’re taking away $5, that’s a tube of toothpaste, that’s a bar, two bars of soap. so they’re just not willing to do it.

What the courts and Congress fail to realize is that you’re not only taking money from the inmates, you’re taking it from their families who support them; grandmothers and mothers out there on Social Security trying to send their child $40 or $50 a month. You’re taking it from the families. And I don’t think that the relatives realize that Congress is taking away money that they’re giving to support so their loved one can remain in prison.

I call it “dismantling” because ending the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act has to be done one provision at a time. If people reach out to their representatives and say they don’t want Congress to use their money to pay for a suit that their loved one may file, that would be a big help. If Congress were to amend the law in this way, it would really diminish its power because so many inmates would be able to file and hold the system accountable.

Nicole: Thank you so much, Dee. We’ll do our part to amplify! Last question: what’s bringing you joy right now?

Dee: Seeing more LGBTQ+ people being successful and expressing themselves freely brings me joy. In the past, like when Farmer v. Brennan was reviewed, there were a lot of people who were oppressed, ashamed and didn’t feel they had a right to be who they wanted to be. I see today that a lot of that is gone. It makes me happy when I walk through the streets of DC often and I see just young people out and expressing themselves and being who they are, and I’m ashamed and bashful about it. That just makes me feel good.

Dee Deidre Farmer is a legal consultant, speaker, writer, and executive director of the nonprofit Fight-4- Justice Project. Ms. Farmer spent more than three decades incarcerated, and much of that time was spent studying the law. Ms. Farmer has assisted hundreds of prisoners with their cases, resulting in releases, reduction of sentences, injunctions, and monetary awards. Ms. Farmer is a graduate of Georgetown Law School’s paralegal program and is a student at Catholic University. She has worked for Human Rights Watch; the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Gay, Lesbian, Advocates, and Defenders; and the Sentencing Project. Ms. Farmer has been a guest speaker at the American Bar Association’s national conference, the Department of Justice, the law schools of Columbia, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Yale, NYU, University of Nebraska, University of Pennsylvania, University of Massachusetts, and the University of Michigan. She has also testified in a congressional briefing. Ms. Farmer co-authored a chapter for the book, The History and Future of Correctional Psychology, and has been published in several law journals. She is a recipient of the 2024 Haymarket Writing Freedom Fellowship.

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