SACRAMENTO, Calif. — U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson of San Francisco ended a 21-year lawsuit Monday that fundamentally changed California’s prison system over the past two decades. Henderson terminated the case after finding the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had implemented the reforms necessary to protect inmates from abuse by prison guards.
The lawsuit, filed by the Prison Law Office in Berkeley in 1990, alleged inmates at Pelican Bay State Prison in Del Norte County were being abused.
The case prompted the corrections department to limit a guard’s use of force and institute protections for mentally ill inmates. It also prompted the state to create an independent inspector general within the corrections department and an office to oversee investigations of staff misconduct.
Prior to the lawsuit, mentally ill inmates at Pelican Bay who acted disorderly were isolated from the rest of the population, sometimes aggravating their conditions. Now they are housed in the psychiatric wards at Pelican Bay or California State Prison-Sacramento.
Henderson ruled in the inmates’ favor in 1995, finding that prison officials had “permitted and condoned a pattern of using excessive force.” In 2004, he extended the court’s oversight to abuse and employee discipline investigations throughout the adult prison system.
He also approved the department’s reform plans, including its revamped policies on the use of force and on investigations into employee wrongdoing.
Henderson ended the case with a written order after the corrections department pledged to continue with the reforms without court supervision.
“The Court is proud of the work done during the life of this case. Pelican Bay was once a place where prison officials used force ‘for the very purpose of inflicting punishment and pain,’” Henderson wrote, quoting from previous findings.
John Hagar, appointed as an overseer by Henderson, held hearings in 2006 to investigate whether the administration of then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was blocking reforms to appease the prison guards union. Hagar reported two years later that the department’s reforms were still in place.
The Prison Law Office said in January the department had implemented reforms sufficient enough to protect inmates from abuse and that the suit should be ended.
Although Henderson said he fears the department could revert to its previous practices, he also said he is confident attorneys representing inmates will sue again if the department eschews the reforms.
Portions of the original lawsuit dealing with the medical and mental health treatment of inmates were separated into two separate and ongoing lawsuits in 2008. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on whether the state must reduce its prison population by 40,000 inmates to improve medical and mental health care.