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The primary work of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York may be administrative advocacy, yet the organization has not abandoned bringing cases with potentially groundbreaking impact. Earlier this month, PLS staff attorney Brendan O’Donnell from the Ithaca, N.Y., office argued Matter of Grant v. Senkowski in the New York Court of Appeals. In Grant, O’Donnell asserted that the “mailbox rule” should apply to Article 78 petitions by pro se prisoners. This would mean that the filing date would be once the inmate placed legal papers in the hands of prison authorities, not when documents are filed with the clerk of the court. Another case, Bottom v. Goord, scheduled for argument in March in the Court of Appeals, originated in Ulster County. The Bottom case weighs an inmate’s right to challenge jail time certification during the period of incarceration. Currently, inmates can only challenge their sentences within the statutory period of the first four months they are first incarcerated. PLS is contending that there should be no limitations period since the state has an obligation to properly calculate an inmate’s sentence. Anderson v. Coughlin is another PLS class action, on behalf of mentally ill inmates in the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Dutchess County, N.Y., as well as the Auburn Correctional Facility in Cayuga County, N.Y. In the Anderson case, litigated in the Northern District federal court, PLS hopes to establish a process for disciplinary proceedings that would consider an inmate’s mental illness and the impact it has on the individual’s behavior so that such prisoners are treated differently from the general inmate population. PLS plans to offer evidence of the effect of sensory deprivation and solitary confinement on the mentally ill. “This is an extremely hot issue locally, statewide and even nationally,” remarked Betsey Sterling, associate director of PLS in Ithaca. “Not only because the number of inmates in the special housing units in prisons are on the rise, but because it illustrates the inherent conflict in trying to get the mentally ill population to conform to prison system rules — issues that haven’t been ruled on.”

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