LSPC engages in impact litigation, as counsel or co-counsel, and occasionally as a plaintiff. Our most significant recent case concerns solitary confinement. We have also served as plaintiffs in cases advocating for the rights of disabled county jail prisoners.
As a general rule, LSPC does not represent individuals in court.
Solitary Confinement: Ashker v. Governor
This lawsuit came out of the prisoner-led hunger strikes of 2011 and 2013 which protested California’s use of indefinite solitary confinement for people alleged to be associated with prison gangs. The lawsuit challenged this policy on two grounds: first, that the procedures used to send people to solitary confinement and keep them there violated due process, and second, that it is cruel and unusual punishment to hold people in solitary confinement for more than 10 years. After several years of litigating and gathering testimony and expert reports on the conditions, LSPC settled the case in October of 2015.
Under the settlement, CDCR may no longer place prisoners in solitary solely for gang affiliation. In addition, CDCR was required to review the status of each prisoner who was incarcerated in solitary for this reason. Prisoners who had not been found guilty of a recent serious rules violation were released to General Population housing.. Pursuant to that settlement, over 1400 prisoners were released from security housing units (SHU) to some form of general population between 2015 and October, 2017.
However, other aspects of the settlement agreement were not complied with, and constitutional violations remain. The gang validation process remains problematic, with dubious evidence being used to label people as gang affiliates. Gang-validated prisoners returning to prison are immediately placed in Administrative Segregation (another form of solitary), where they may remain for months to a year or more while CDCR conducts safety investigations. We have strenuously objected to this procedure as violating the settlement agreement, to no avail.
CDCR is using “a prisoner’s own safety” as a reason to place them in solitary or restricted housing, which looks and feels punitive. The majority of these prisoners assert that they are in no danger and want to be released to general population. Prisoners placed in the RCGP (a new restricted custody unit at Pelican Bay created by the settlement agreement) are finding it next to impossible to challenge their initial and continuing placement there.
In order to monitor the new placement of prisoners into the SHU, we have been reviewing disciplinary violation and hearing reports. Prisoners continue to be sent to SHU based on confidential information that they cannot challenge and are otherwise thwarted at presenting a defense. Some prisoners experience retaliation based on their involvement in our lawsuit. Others are finding the parole board to be hostile or unsympathetic to their bids for parole dates, despite their many unlawful years of suffering in solitary. The Level IV prisons that most of our class members have been assigned to do not provide sufficient jobs and programming for everyone who wants to be productive and gain an education and employment skills.
Although the two year monitoring period ended in October, 2017, we filed and are litigating several motions authorized by the settlement. The issues concern our class members’ treatment in Level IV, the procedures and conditions in the RCGP, the misuse of confidential information and other abuses of the disciplinary process., and the denial of Prop 57 and lifer parole.
For more information about the Board of Parole Hearings advocacy, see our video webinar for attorneys and family members supporting a loved one before the parole board, and information compiled by LSPC for prisoners.
Jewett v. Shasta County
LSPC is a plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged the conditions faced by people in the Shasta County Jail, represented by the Disability Rights Legal Center and Keker, Van Nest & Peters. The jail, as constructed, created physical barriers for incarcerated people with disabilities affecting their ability to walk to access basic necessities, recreation, or programs. The only accessible cells were in the medical unit, so individuals needing accommodation were taken out of the general population and lost basic programming and interaction with others. Aids to make mobility easier and safer—such as canes, walkers, crutches, and grab bars in the bathroom and shower—were not allowed or were not installed in the jail.
When individuals brought these issues to the attention of jail staff, or met with attorneys about their concerns, some staff members responded with retaliation: altered food, denied medication, and bogus rule infractions and punishment.
As LSPC Executive Director Dorsey Nunn explained when the complaint was filed, “As an organization of currently and formerly incarcerated people, we are very concerned about the human rights violations against all people in jails and prisons. People do not shed their humanity at booking. We hope this litigation will result in Shasta County properly caring for the people in its custody.”
The county settled on November 28, 2017. The settlement requires the county to make substantial construction and policy changes to the jail in order to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements, end retaliation for reporting unlawful conditions, and hire an ADA coordinator to ensure that the county does not slip back into unlawful practices.
LSPC v. Ahern (Alameda County Jail)
Filed in 2012, this lawsuit alleged that Santa Rita jail failed to provide for the basic needs of people with disabilities. For example, people with disabilities were forced to live in housing units that lacked basic wheelchair accessible facilities such as toilets, showers and visiting areas. Some people with disabilities were unnecessarily segregated in the Outpatient Housing Unit, where they were denied access to rehabilitative programs, religious services and recreational activities.
The case settled in 2016. The County agreed to make significant physical modifications to provide wheelchair-accessible cells, showers, restroom, dining facilities, recreation areas, visiting areas, entrances and health care facilities. In addition, the County agreed to provide American Sign Language interpreters where necessary and videophones for prisoners who use American Sign Language. The settlement also includes updates to policies, such as its grievance policy.
LSPC and its attorneys at Disability Rights Advocates and Disability Rights Legal Center continue to monitor the jail’s progress at meeting its obligations under the settlement.