A long-running legal action that exposed widespread abuses at the state’s highest security prison and forced major reforms within California's department of corrections is drawing to a close.
In the coming days, federal District Judge Thelton Henderson is expected to terminate litigation in a case that began when inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison filed a class-action lawsuit over claims of widespread physical abuse, poor medical and mental health care, and appalling conditions in the prison’s notorious security housing unit.
In a sweeping decision with national implications, Henderson ruled in 1995 that Pelican Bay inmates had been subjected to excessive violence and cruel and unusual punishment.
"The Eighth Amendment's restraint on using excessive force has been repeatedly violated at Pelican Bay, leading to a conspicuous pattern of excessive force," he wrote.
That followed harrowing courtroom testimony of prison staff routinely beating, burning and even shooting inmates and getting away with it. Mentally ill inmates were locked away in isolation units with almost no contact with doctors or other staff.
The trial also included evidence that Pelican Bay guards had staged an inmate riot while Henderson was visiting the facility.
Federal prosecutors alleged the guards were trying “to show Judge Henderson that Pelican Bay is a dangerous place, and that he should not interfere with the guards in running the prison.”
Henderson ordered the prison to remove any seriously mentally ill or retarded inmates from the security housing unit. He also appointed a federal monitor to oversee changes in the way California deploys force in prison and how it investigates and disciplines prison staff.
The closing of the case – known as Madrid v. Gomez – is a rare piece of good news for a prison system battling budget cuts and court orders to reduce overcrowding and improve inmate health care.
Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said ending the litigation will affirm the department’s ability to implement key reforms.
“We have both the plaintiff’s and the federal court’s concurrence that we’re running a competent system, one that’s fair to our employees and fair to inmates. And one that results in an internal justice system that the public can trust,” Cate said.
Steve Fama of the Prison Law Office, which filed the original lawsuit, noted a “dramatic difference in the treatment of prisoners” in the decade and a half since Henderson’s ruling.
“When we were litigating Madrid, they were literally killing people on a fairly regular basis with guns,” recalled Don Specter, the Prison Law Office’s director. “That has basically stopped. I have no doubt that a lot of lives have been saved as a result of the case.”
Specter noted one weakness in the Madrid ruling: it didn't outlaw California's use of security housing units--windowless chambers where alleged gang members and other inmates spend nearly all their time locked alone in spartan cells.
"The ruling said that certain inmates with mental illness must be moved out of the units, but others could remain," he said.
Still, disciplinary procedures imposed as a result of the litigation cracked a pervasive code of silence over the use of excessive force by correctional officers, according to Specter.
“No longer could you hide behind the fact that it wasn’t you who was doing it,” he said. “If you saw inappropriate uses of force, you were bound to report it or you yourself were subject to discipline.”
Implementing Judge Henderson’s order has been a long, expensive slog for the prison system. Matthew Cate said he's proud of his department's accomplishments but given the many challenges ahead there isn’t time to look back.
“The hard thing is in this business we don’t have time to celebrate because we’ve got a budget crisis and we’ve knocked out three class actions but there are 16 to go,” he said. “So you take a breath, you shake hands and you get right back to work.”