Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Report Back: Donald Specter and Paul Wright

Golden Gate University Law Professor Mort Cohen moderated a discussion between Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter and Prison Legal News Founder/Editor Paul Wright. Donald Specter told a series of fascinating war stories about litigation and advocacy he's engaged in. He described pointing out to prison administrators that hearing-impaired inmates told to "Get down or we'll shoot!" were in mortal peril. He said that last month he toured a CA prison and pointed out to wardens that overflowing toilets meant that prisoners in wheelchairs were getting sewage on their wheels and thus their hands. "Aren't they supposed to be given gloves for that?" "No one told us."

Next, he walked us through the genesis of the Plata/Coleman proceedings. In 1991, 7 years after Prison Law Office opened, 3 prisoners in Vacaville on psychotropic medication died from heatstroke because they were in overheated cells and insufficiently hydrated. Specter started the case because they had just won a San Quentin mental health and medical care case resulting in an injunction from Judge Marilyn Patel. Since implementing the injunction was too expensive, they moved those prisoners to Vacaville. PLO won a consent decree against Vacaville requiring adequate care and staffing for mentally ill inmates. In response, the Department of Corrections engaged in "bus therapy," meaning scattering them around the state without regard to whether there were mental health workers at the prisons they went to. For example, many went to Pelican Bay State Prison, where there were only one psychologist and no psychiatrists. Having been burned twice, by San Quentin and Vacaville, PLO sued the whole prison system. They were only able to afford it with help from several SF law firms. They tried the case in 1993, and after a 3-month trial, an injunction issued in 1995. 6 months later PLO tried the Pelican Bay case, and Judge Henderson issued a similar order in 1995. In 1999 Specter started negotiating with the Attorney General's office, and finally filed in 2001 because the AG said there were not enough doctors. Prisoners were at risk to receive bad care because they were being treated by doctors of the wrong specialties. The parties settled in 2002. In 2005 a receiver was appointed by Judge Henderson, but they still couldn't fix the problems because prisons were at 200% of design capacity. Specter tried the present litigation before Judges Carlton, Henderson, & Reinhardt, against 51 interveners besides the State of CA, and is now finally waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court.

New (to me): Twice as many California prisoners kill themselves compared to the national average.

Specter said he finds most disappointing the degree to which the Legislature has come to depend upon the Judiciary for its decision-making. The Legislature has virtually abdicated its initiative in this policy area, relying on the courts to decide for them what to do with the prisons.

When asked how to fix the prison system, Specter said we need: (1) fewer prisoners, (2) less pay for prison guards / less concessions to CCPOA, (3) more programs in prisons to reduce recidivism rates and repeat crimes. Paul Wright said we need equality: in southern California celebrities can discharge their sentences in "pay-to-stay" state-run facilities where they get to keep their cell phones and laptops in their cells.

One of the best questions of the evening: "Does California have an emergency disaster plan in case of an earthquake on a scale comparable to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?" Specter cited the major fire that nearly destroyed a prison a few years ago, as evidence that even though there is such a plan here its implementation is suspect.

On another question, Paul Wright surprised many attendees by reminding us that a major obstacle to prison reform is the private prison industry that spends millions of dollars lobbying state governments to keep/put more people in prison.


Robert Canning said...


Thanks for writing about Don Spector and the PLO. They have done a lot of good for California prisoners. One comment - you write: "New (to me): Twice as many California prisoners kill themselves compared to the national average." If Don stated that, did he have the numbers to back it up? He may believe that some deaths that are attributed to accidental deaths (OD's) or other non-violent deaths are actually suicide, but the numbers of the Coleman Special Master and what we in CDCR Mental Health collect dispute that high number. The Bureau of Justice Statistics' Death in Custody unit says the national rate of suicide for state prisoners is about 16-17 per 100K. California's rate in the last five years has ranged from 14 to 25. Double the national rate is a bit of a stretch. The PLO does great work but it doesn't make sense to me to make statements without the evidence to back it up. It only hurts the cause. Thanks for your great work in keeping the public informed about our whacky and often inhumane prison system.

Hadar Aviram said...

Thanks for commenting, Robert (this is actually Jesse's post - I wasn't there). Will look up the data and get back to you.