If torture in Abu Ghraib draws your ire, you might also wince at the treatment of prisoners in your own backyard.
More than 170,000 people are housed in 33 California prisons and juvenile centers designed to hold half that number. In 2005, a state judge found that one inmate died every week due to inadequate medical care. Prison reform advocates and state judges who rule in their favor agree that the system— which costs taxpayers $10 billion per year—is in serious disrepair. Some prisons make Alcatraz,
now a museum, seem new. Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proclaimed state prison conditions an emergency.
If not for a nonprofit organization called the Prison Law Office (PLO) the death toll might be even higher, the overcrowding even greater, the conditions even worse. Led by Donald Specter, JD ’78, the PLO brings class action suits against the state, suits which have forced the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to provide inmates with adequate health care, access to facilities for the disabled, and the right to serve their sentences free from excessive force. The office also represents inmates, from whom it receives hundreds of letters each week, in the areas of parolee rights, sentencing reform, and environmental conditions.
Specter began as a volunteer at the office in 1979. The three-year-old organization then featured a staff of two attorneys, and focused mainly on individual cases. A newly minted lawyer with progressive ideas, Specter had passed the state bar exam and figured he would help out the PLO while applying for work as a lawyer.
He never left for that new job.
After four years he became director of PLO, which now occupies an office along the bay a short walk from San Quentin State Prison and has 12 full-time attorneys supported by a staff of secretaries, paralegals, contract attorneys, and interns.
“I became a lawyer because I was interested in social justice—improving the lives of people, doing something to help people, being an agent for social change,” says Specter, who was named USF School of Law Alumnus of the Year in December. “Working for corporations? That’s something I never even thought about.”
California’s deteriorating prisons, home to the second largest prison population in the world (behind only the U.S. federal prison system), keep the PLO offices filled with activity. The nonprofit is currently the lead counsel for plaintiffs in two high-profile cases, Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, which seek to place a cap on the California prison population. The Plata case aims to demonstrate that prison overcrowding prevented the state from providing adequate health care to inmates, while the Coleman case addresses the provision of mental health care.
“We filed this motion a year ago, one month after Gov. Schwarzenegger proclaimed an emergency because the prisons were so overcrowded,” he says. “The governor stated that prison overcrowding increases violence, creates health hazards and adds to risk of a serious riot.”
Overcrowding also reduces space for rehabilitative programs known to reduce crime, and affects the prison’s ability to discharge waste and meet environmental standards.
“If the court grants our motion and issues a population cap, it will have profound consequences for the criminal justice system,” Specter says. “It will require those who decide sentencing policies and those who send people to prisons to view prison cells as a scarce resource.”
more: A Voice for Prison Reform 1 2