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California Prison Legal Fund Broke

by W. Wisely

The California Department of Corrections' $15.5 million legal settlement fund went broke in late March, 1999, three months before the end of the fiscal year, according to an article by Pam Podger in the May 27, 1999, edition of The San Francisco Chronicle Steve Fama, a staff attorney at the Prison Law Office in the shadow of San Quentin, told the Chronicle he wasn't surprised the department exhausted its fund in settlements and judgments arising out of the many cases of abuse and brutality against prisoners, as well as, inadequate medical and mental health care.

"It is the inevitable result of years of bad policy and neglect of prisoners," Fama said. "I think the department still has substantial exposure to successful legal action in the area of medical and mental health care." The department paid cash settlements or judgments in 113 cases so far this year. Eight-five of the cases were filed by prisoners with the rest filed by staff or contractors.

Newly elected Democratic Governor Gray Davis proposed doubling the department's settlement fund to $28.8 million next year. Cal Terhune, the department's director, projects the total needed for legal settlements in fiscal year 1999/2000 will exceed $39 million. "We've reached the pinnacle and maybe these [settlements] won't continue to grow," said Pam Smith-Steward, deputy director of the department's litigation division, in the Chronicle article. "But, it's hard to crystal-ball anything as dynamic as litigation."

The department requested emergency funding from the state Legislature to get through the fiscal year which ends June 30, 1999. Faced with the department's plea for an additional $77 million, lawmakers want specific details showing how the department plans to rein in legal costs and reduce exposure to liability among its 33 prisons. Senate majority Leader Richard Polanco, the Los Angeles Democrat who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Operations, indicated he will closely examine the department's vulnerability to lawsuits in future hearings.

The department paid $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the widow and mother of Mark Adams, shot to death by a guard during a fist-fight on a San Quentin exercise yard. [PLN, May 1999] "The story is the Adams case shocked them and set them back a little," Leroy Lounibos, attorney for the dead man's relatives, told the Chronicle "Right now, the department is impoverished on the street corner with a tin cup. They are learning the hard way, but they are also doing a lot to avoid this in the future."

In November, 1998, the department paid $825,000 to settle a wrongful death suit for the widely publicized shooting of Preston Tate in Corcoran SHU in 1994. Tate was killed during an unarmed fight on the exercise yard arranged for the entertainment of, and covered up by, guards. [PLN, May 1999] The department also settled a $2.2 million suit in which Vincent Tulumis was shot by a guard and paralyzed for life during yet another unarmed fist-fight on a Corcoran SHU yard in 1993. In April, a court-ordered settlement conference was canceled by a federal judge because the department's fund was exhausted.

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