Since 2004, he has been the Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of NY (CA). The CA has statutory authority to inspect prisons in NY State and to report its findings to the legislature and public. At the CA, he has focused on monitoring conditions within NY prisons, including the impact of solitary confinement; safety and violence in the prisons; prison medical and mental health care; and treatment of persons in prison with substance abuse histories. Prior to the CA, he was a Senior Supervising Attorney at the Prisoners’ Right Project (PRP) of the Legal Aid Society, where he worked for 23 years. At PRP, he pursued federal class action litigation on behalf of people in state prisons and New York City jails. He specialized in medical care issues, with particular focus on HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C. He is a member of several statewide coalitions concerned with (1) incarcerated persons placed in isolated confinement, (2) medical and/or mental health care in prisons that advocates for legislation to improve care of persons inside, particularly those infected with HIV and/or hepatitis C and those who suffer from mental illness; and (3) developing comprehensive reforms to deficiencies in the criminal justice system including ending state violence, eliminating racial disparities and transforming the overly punitive system to a more humane and effective treatment model.
Karen L. Murtagh is the Executive Director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York (PLS), a not-for-profit legal services organization founded in 1976 to provide civil legal services to indigent individuals incarcerated in New York State prisons. She is a graduate of Clarkson University and Albany Law School and is admitted to practice law in New York State, all Federal District Courts of New York and the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Murtagh has litigated issues concerning prisoners’ due process rights at disciplinary hearings, prison conditions, deliberate indifference, the First Amendment and the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). She has tried cases in both the Court of Claims and Federal Court and has argued cases before New York State courts including the New York Court of Appeals where she successfully argued that an incarcerated person’s mental health must be considered as a mitigating factor at a prison disciplinary hearing. Ms. Murtagh was also successful as amicus, appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case challenging the constitutionality of a New York State statute that prohibited prisoners from filing federal §1983 actions in state court.
Ms. Murtagh has lectured and conducted CLE trainings across the State on prisoners’ rights issues. She also served on the faculty of Albany Law School as an adjunct professor where she established a clinic program for prisoners’ rights and taught Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Constitutional Law, Court of Claims Practice, and Litigation Skills. She conducts an annual training for CUNY law students in the Criminal Defense Clinic, training them on the prison disciplinary process and Article 78 procedure.
Ms. Murtagh is the author of “Solitary Confinement in New York State” the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Civil Rights Report to the House of Delegates which resulted in the House of Delegates adopting a resolution urging, among other things, that the imposition of long-term solitary confinement on persons in custody beyond 15 days be proscribed.
Under her leadership, PLS was awarded the 2014 Denison Ray Non-Profit Organization Award which, inter alia, recognized PLS’ extraordinary commitment to strengthening access to justice initiatives.
In 2017, Ms. Murtagh was presented with the Outstanding Contribution in the Field of Correctional Services award from the Criminal Justice Section of the New York State Bar Association.