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Lawyers Go Behind Bars as Guardians of Prisoner Rights

October 11, 2005|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — They exposed the state's locking up of juvenile offenders for 23 hours at a stretch in cells smeared with blood and feces.

They helped spark an unprecedented federal court takeover of California's prison healthcare system after revealing that prisoners were dying because of medical neglect.

They ended the practice of placing mentally ill prisoners in extreme isolation.

The Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group of lawyers who labor in the shadow of San Quentin Prison, has in recent years scored a string of court victories felt in nearly every corner of California's teeming prisons.

"There is almost no aspect of California corrections, adult or juvenile, that is not subject to a court order, and almost all of those are the result of suits brought by the Prison Law Office," said Barry Krisberg, president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Although its lawyers are underpaid by law firm standards and represent wildly unpopular clients, the group has become a litigation powerhouse so successful that the state in recent years has chosen to fold rather than fight it.

Why, then, do the lawyers seem more frustrated than triumphant?

They complain that the pace of change in California's prisons and youth correctional facilities is achingly slow, that court orders and negotiated settlements take years to achieve and mark only the start of reform.

As they trudge from prison to prison to make sure that promised improvements are in place, they say they must continually remind themselves of what they have accomplished during the group's 30 years of legal advocacy.

"People aren't shot dead anymore; let's start with that one," said Steve Fama, 49, who has worked at the Prison Law Office for 20 years. "During the late '80s to mid-'90s, the number of prisoners shot dead in California was staggeringly disproportionate to the number shot dead in all the other state prisons combined."

The 10 lawyers, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, work in a cluster of modest offices on San Francisco Bay. They receive as many as 100 letters a day from inmates asking for help.

"The kind of cases the Prison Law Office has litigated involve a guy sticking his arm through the food slot and a guard breaking his arm, people crawling up the stairs to parole hearings because there were no provisions for people with disabilities and inmates on psychotropic drugs dying because their cells overheated," said Sue Burrell, an attorney for the Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm.

In a lawsuit against the California Youth Authority, the Prison Law Office complained:

"Rehabilitation cannot succeed when the classroom is a cage and wards live in constant fear of physical and sexual violence from CYA staff and other wards."

In a report stemming from a lawsuit the office helped bring, a court-appointed monitor found that the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was refusing to discipline guards for serious misconduct at Pelican Bay, a super-maximum security prison.

"Some correctional officers end up acquiring a prisoner's mentality: They form gangs, align with gangs and spread the code of silence," the monitor, John Hagar, wrote.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson reported that at least 34 inmates had died recently because of neglect, incompetence and "even cruelty" by medical staff. Henderson's action followed a lawsuit by the Prison Law Office.

On a tour of medical facilities at San Quentin, the judge observed a dentist who neither washed his hands nor changed his gloves after placing his hands in patients' mouths.

"On average, an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the ... medical delivery system," Henderson said.

The Prison Law Office was established when memories of the siege at Attica Correctional Facility in New York were still fresh. The 1971 uprising, in which 43 were killed, raised public awareness of brutality and racism in American prisons and spurred widespread calls for reform.

But the passage of years diminished the power of Attica, and the impulse for reform gave way to laws instituting harsher and harsher prison sentences. The inmate population exploded.

From 1983 to 1995, the number of California inmates rose from 30,000 to 160,000. Despite an unprecedented prison construction boom, the prisons are at roughly 193% of their design capacity, frustrating efforts to improve conditions.

Don Specter, 53, director of the Prison Law Office, said sentencing laws need to be revised to reduce the numbers behind bars. As long as the prisons are overcrowded, conditions that violate the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment will persist, he said.

During the lawyers' visits to the prisons, the inmates tend to be appreciative.

"A lot of them realize you're their only hope, the only thing that stands between them and the guard," Specter said.

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