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.