Monday, September 30, 2013

Ashker v. Brown: Guest Post by Hali Ford

A long line of high school students filed into the courthouse at 2 o’clock.  One attorney told me she had never seen such a turn out for oral arguments.  Judge Wilken interrupted the attorneys’ appearances to welcome the high school students.  She highlighted the importance of their attendance at a case involving such serious issues.

A group of Pelican Bay inmates seeks class certification to bring two claims against Governor Brown and CDCR.  Under current CDCR protocol, tattoos, reading materials, associations with other prisoners, and other factors earn inmates “points” towards being “validated” as a gang member.  Validated inmates are placed in solitary confinement, or, “the SHU” (secure housing unit), indefinitely.  The inmates claim this “indefinite SHU time for constitutionally infirm reasons” violates due process.  The inmates also seek to certify a “subset” of the class: inmates who have been in the SHU for longer than 10 years.  This subset brings an 8th Amendment challenge, arguing that 10+ years in solitary confinement poses an “unacceptable risk to prisoners.”   

Judge Wilken took issue primarily with the inmates’ method for defining the 8th Amendment class.   A key question cannot be answered except through discovery: how many, if any, inmates have been in SHU for longer than 10 years for reasons other than gang validation?   The inmates’ counsel stated that he suspects, but must determine through discovery, that no inmates have been in the SHU beyond 10 years for any other reason.  Judge Wilken expressed concern about certifying the class without knowing the characteristics of its members with certainty.   To bring a class action, the inmate group must satisfy the conditions of commonality and typicality.  She also explained that the 8th Amendment test to determine whether punishment is cruel and unusual compares the severity of punishment against the gravity of the offense.  The 8th Amendment balancing calculus would differ for the inmate who has been in the SHU for longer than 10 years because he murdered another inmate, for example, and the inmate in the SHU 10+ years for gang validation, and gang validation only.

Judge Wilken preferred to visualize the due process and 8th Amendment groups as a Venn diagram instead of an umbrella group and subset: all of the members of the due process group challenging gang validation in one circle, in the other circle, all of the 8th Amendment group members challenging 10+ years in the SHU, and in the overlap, those who have been in the SHU for more than 10 years for gang validation only.  The inmates believe all of the 8th Amendment group members also fit within the due process class.  That fact will be determined in discovery.

Neither party objected to defining the potential due process class as “all inmates serving indeterminate sentences at Pelican Bay SHU pursuant to Title 15 as of x date, on the basis of gang validation only.”  For the 8th Amendment challenge, Judge Wilken suggested the parties amend the complaint once they have determined the number, if any, of inmates in SHU for 10+ years for reasons other than gang validation.

Discovery will involve interviewing more than 100 inmates.  The discovery deadline is set for late March, summary judgment June 19, and bench trial nov 3-21 bench trial.  Neither party expressed enthusiasm when Judge Wilken discussed settlement.

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