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Bringing Her Lone Star Power

Donna Brorby was relentless in forcing Texas to clean up its prisons. Now the lawyer is being asked to fix the troubled CYA.

December 27, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Don't be fooled by the fuzzy old mutt dozing peacefully on Donna Brorby's lap. Tough and relentless, Brorby spent more than 20 years -- the bulk of her life as a lawyer -- forcing Texas to clean up its notorious prisons.

Death threats, stubborn wardens, hostile politicians, witnesses willing to lie for their beloved correctional system -- such were the obstacles Brorby faced as counsel for Texas inmates in the nation's longest-running civil rights case.

Now, the Bay Area native has been asked to apply her talents in California.

Under a lawsuit settlement announced last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Brorby will oversee a top-to-bottom overhaul of the state's juvenile prison system, rocked this year by graphic disclosures of violent conditions and substandard care.

Both sides in the lawsuit -- prison officials and attorneys who filed the case on behalf of taxpayers -- agree that Brorby, 53, has the insider know-how, credibility and temperament for the job. Less certain is whether the legal remedies she must enforce will turn around the California Youth Authority, home to 4,000 of the state's toughest young lawbreakers.

"Given that every effort to fundamentally change the CYA has failed over the last two decades, it's obvious that she faces a very tough task," said David Steinhart, a veteran juvenile justice consultant. "It's a mountain that nobody has been able to move so far."

Those who knew Brorby in Texas say she has the impartial demeanor and stamina such a task will demand. Fixing the CYA will require her to cope with tricky politics, competing agendas and shrunken coffers, but few challenges could equal what she encountered in Texas in the 1970s, they say.

At the time, female lawyers were relatively few, and Brorby was in her late 20s, fresh out of UC Berkeley's law school. Possessing little real-world legal experience, she was given a formidable task: Ferret out facts from inside a secretive, brutal penal system that evoked images of "Cool Hand Luke."

To say she was viewed with disdain by most Texas prison officials would be an understatement. The system was a man's world through and through, recalled Steve Martin, a onetime correctional officer who became chief counsel for the prisons. Many wardens took to calling Brorby "little lady" when she showed up at their gates.

"Donna is not a 'hose and heels gal,' " added Scott McCown, the state's lead lawyer on the prison case in the mid-1980s. "And she'd show up at these East Texas prisons in her bluejeans and tennis shoes looking like some liberal activist from San Francisco. By Texas standards, everything about her was weird and threatening."

Brorby quickly proved that "she had no problem going toe to toe with the good ol' boys" on behalf of her inmate clients, added McCown. But ultimately, he said, she won over most of the wardens because she was straightforward and fair.

"She always had a willingness to be moved by the facts, and everyone respected her for that.... Of course, that doesn't mean they didn't dread seeing her coming and weren't glad to see her go."

In the California Youth Authority, Brorby confronts a system that once was a national model of juvenile rehabilitation but now sees three out of four of its parolees arrested on new charges within three years of release.

Its problems don't end there. As part of the lawsuit, a team of experts went inside the prisons and produced reports depicting a system plagued by shoddy medical care, inadequate psychological services, a pervasive gang culture and violence considered "off the charts" compared to that in other states.

Next month, CYA officials must detail their plans for reform. Brorby was picked by both sides as the "special master" for the case.

She will evaluate the plans, suggest changes, mediate disputes between the parties and prepare progress reports -- all toward the goal of ensuring the CYA fulfills the terms of the settlement. She has no direct power over state officials, but she can ask the supervising judge to intervene if she suspects foot-dragging.

The job is a delicate one, requiring a person who can remain scrupulously objective and gain the trust of warring parties. In that sense, Brorby's selection stirred a few qualms among those inside the CYA, given her background as a lawyer for prisoners.

Carl Reynolds, general counsel for the Texas prison system, said skeptics needn't worry: "Donna is very zealous on behalf of her clients, but she also understands corrections and knows how to figure out who's telling the truth."

CYA Director Walter Allen III said he views Brorby as a "very pragmatic person. What we didn't need is another person hovering at 4,000 feet telling us what to do," he said. "Because of her experience on the ground in Texas, Donna Brorby knows it's not a simple thing to make the reforms we intend to make."

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