San Francisco attorney Mark White is no stranger to civil rights cases, but his firm just met with success in its first foray into prisoners’ rights. In the midst of a very high-profile campaign for statewide prison reform, White’s 15-attorney firm got a favorable judgment for an inmate who claimed he was wrongly thrown into solitary confinement — for eight years.
The conditions at the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay, the maximum-security state prison where Chapman, Popik & White’s client Ernesto Lira served time on minor theft and drug charges, were horrific, White said. He spent 22.5 hours a day every day in a windowless 8-foot-by-10-foot cell with a two-inch mattress on a concrete slab, only allowed out to shower in the isolation pod three times a week, and once a day to go to the “yard,” a bare concrete-interior court yard with 18-foot walls.
Making the case, after the jump.
“It’s about as grim as I can imagine,” White said. “There is growing research and growing concern among mental health professionals that it drives inmates crazy.”
On Wednesday, Northern District Court Judge Susan Illston found (.pdf) that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation violated Lira’s constitutional due process rights when it secretly and without sufficient evidence “validated” him as an associate of a prison gang.
Lira spent years defending himself pro per from the isolation cell. About three and a half years ago, he wrote a letter to the Chapman, Popik firm, which took his case on pro bono (though on winning, it would be entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs). In his testimony, Lira disputed his alleged gang status, challenged the reliability of documentation the corrections department relied on to validate him, and demonstrated the serious emotional effects of extended confinement in extreme isolation. The trial took place in January and February.
White said that at trial, the evidence presented was twofold: that Lira continues to face a deadly danger of reprisal from actual gang members for refusing to affiliate with a gang and that a judicial declaration that the validation was wrongful and clearance of the validation from his prison records would help him deal with his depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and sleeping problems. “Although it’s hardly going to cure or alleviate any of his conditions, it would have a meaningful and beneficial effect on him,” White said. “The court agreed.”
Lira had originally sought damages against individual corrections personnel but elected to dismiss those to avoid more years of delay for a second interim appeal. (Under federal law you can’t sue the department itself for damages.)
He lives in Atwater near Merced, providing care for his 85-year-old mother and his 102-year-old grandmother, White said.
For the team, which also included co-founding partner William Chapman, the result was rewarding. White said these cases are “very, very hard to litigate and win,” because the way courts have interpreted the constitutional rights for prison inmates facing confinement in connection with gang affiliation involve minimal standards, very little in the way of due process, and only minimal evidence. “It was challenging also because the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fought the case tooth-and-nail.”
— Petra Pasternak