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Permanent Injunction Issued in Madrid

A PLN reader in Pelican Bay sent us a copy of a 26-page "Remedial Order RE: Exclusion From the Security Housing Unit" issued by U.S. district court judge Thelton Henderson on December 15, 1995. The reader who sent us the copy characterized it as "basically just more penological rhetoric, since ain't nothing has changed in the way of establishing an adequate medical department."

For background on Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal 1995), the Pelican Bay class action suit, refer to the August '95 issue of PLN. In January 1995, the court rendered a lengthy decision which was harshly critical of the California Department of Corrections (CDC), which Gomez heads, and of the brutal treatment of Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisoners in particular. A special master was assigned to monitor changes ordered by the court's 1995 ruling.

The court found in 1995 that conditions of SHU imprisonment at Pelican Bay amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for a sub-class of prisoners: those who are mentally ill, as well as prisoners who suffer from certain other mental disorders, chronic depression or brain damage and retardation. The court had ruled: "For these inmates, placing them in the SHU is the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe."

In its December 1995 order, the court states that "after working with defendants for nine months, and giving them every opportunity, defendants still had not provided a good faith plan designed to implement the exclusion categories as required by the Court's January 10, 1995 order. Nor was there any indication that defendants intended to do so."

This permanent injunction echoes the "penological rhetoric" of the court's original order of January 1995, in that it contains language harshly critical of the CDC. But when one strips away the harsh rhetoric to reveal the underlying practical value of the injunction, a different picture emerges.

The CDC begged the court to be allowed to make "exceptions" to the exclusion of mentally ill prisoners from Pelican Bay's SHU "based upon dangerousness and/or repeated treatment failure, and the genuine inability to house at an alternative location." The court granted their wish, allowing the CDC to "within 30 days of the date of this Order, submit a proposed procedure for permitting exceptions to the permanent injunction ... based on dangerousness and/or [same language as above]." Though the court adds, "such exceptions shall only be provided in extraordinary and exceptional circumstances," it beggars the imagination to think that the CDC won't use these exceptions primarily against jail house lawyers and politically active prisoners.

But that's not all. The CDC proposed to the court that they be allowed to convert some of the SHU pods into a Psychiatric Security Unit (PSU). From reading the injunction itself, it is difficult to determine exactly what this PSU is, but it sounds like nothing more than a paint job and a name change.

There are those who claim that Madrid was a victory for prisoners, and that progress is being made to abolish or mitigate some of the most egregious practices of the CDC at Pelican Bay. There is no doubt that the minimal changes being implemented as a result of the Madrid litigation are better than nothing. But to term them a victory is simply a way to make it easier to swallow the bitter pill of reform that is being jammed down the throats of prisoners locked in the high-tech dungeons of Pelican Bay. And since Madrid will undoubtedly be used to guide many other courts, its echoes will reverberate through the dungeons of every new super-max gulag in the country. PLN will attempt to keep our readers updated on further developments with Madrid. The permanent injunction is not published. See: Madrid v. Gomez, No. C90-3094-TEH.

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Related legal case

Madrid v. Gomez