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Landmark 1980 California Death Row Federal Consent Decree Partially Terminated Under PLRA

Landmark 1980 California Death Row Federal Consent Decree Partially Terminated Under PLRA

by John E. Dannenberg

A landmark 1980 federal consent decree that covers all manner of living conditions for San Quentin State Prison’s death row population was partially terminated in February 2008 following a motion by the state defendants, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2) and (3).

As a result, protective orders covering such diverse concerns as meals, hobby craft, education, exercise yard access and equipment, clothing, showers, religious services, raincoats, laundry, telephones, visitation and law libraries were terminated because a 2007 court audit had found reasonable compliance in those areas. However, the district court determined that non-compliance still existed regarding the issues of cleaning supplies, pest control, shower maintenance/cleaning and noise in East Block, for which it therefore elected to continue court supervision.

Originally filed as Thompson v. Enemoto, the class action lawsuit requested federal oversight of living conditions for San Quentin’s death row prisoners (now numbering 631). Although granted the privilege of 4’ by 9’ single cells (non-condemned prisoners are double-bunked in identical size cells), prisoners on death row are greatly restricted in terms of movement and prison amenities. In general, because they are cell-bound, they must have their canteen, telephones, laundry and food brought to them. “Movement” is restricted to the yard, showers, group religious services, law library, visits and medical. Prior inadequacies in these areas amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, as determined by the court, and led to decades of federal oversight.

Under their PLRA motion, the state defendants, who bore the burden of proof, submitted to an on-site audit by the court that graded San Quentin on each of the covered issues.
Additionally, the court heard testimony from over 30 witnesses, including prisoners, guards and a former warden. Following oral argument at a February 2008 bench trial, the court terminated each area that was in compliance “without prejudice to a future motion or action for new injunctive relief if conditions degenerate to unconstitutional levels.”

The best-behaved condemned prisoners (Grade A) may schedule 2 1/2 hour contact visits with friends and family; Grade B prisoners are restricted to non-contact visits. Since San Quentin’s visitation program exceeds constitutional requirements, no violation was found and court oversight was terminated.

Similarly, the tier telephones were found to be adequate; to the extent that broken phones were repaired within a few days, no constitutional violation accrued.

A major issue in the original case was access to legal materials. To this end, condemned prisoners now have a separate but fully compliant law book collection (the “SHU Library”) that they can visit, plus “pocket libraries” within each of the three death row cell blocks that contain specified legal reference materials (including subscriptions to PLN pursuant to a recent, unrelated settlement with the California prison system). Research questions are often passed along to law clerks at the Main Law Library for further assistance. Legal access was therefore deemed compliant.

East Block, which houses the majority of death row prisoners, is notoriously noisy. Ear plugs were “offered” but seldom issued. While some noise abatement was achieved, the district court determined that the defendants had not met their burden of proving the problem was fully remediated. Accordingly, court oversight was continued.

The prison’s laundry system, based on tied-off mesh laundry bags wherein all articles are cleaned together at a centralized laundry, was deemed both sanitary and adequate, relieving the defendants of continued court oversight. Cleaning supplies, however, did not pass muster. Inadequate (or nonexistent) quantities of requisite cleaning materials and supplies remained an area requiring ongoing court supervision.

East Block continues to be plagued by vermin and birds. Bird guano and feathers appeared everywhere – on food trays, clothing and tiers. The court observed stalactites and stalagmites of bird feces throughout the block, and failed the defendants on this issue.
Likewise, the court was appalled by the ongoing (and banned) process of sweeping filth from the shower stalls onto the tiers as the “cleaning” procedure, which causes mold and an infectious “micro-mist that circulates throughout East Block.” The court expressly found that this was an ongoing constitutional violation which it ordered corrected “immediately,” by requiring the defendants to eradicate all accumulated filth within 45 days and take measures to prevent recurrences.

Notably, following the court’s order, San Quentin hired a contractor at a cost of $4.5 million to abate lead, asbestos, mold and guano contamination, and to professionally clean all vents, tiers and gun rails of accumulated filth in East Block. Further, in response to a group grievance filed by this writer on behalf of 350 prisoners, the contractor similarly cleaned North Block (which houses general population) in early 2008.
Immediately, persistent upper respiratory infections decreased markedly. See: Lancaster v. Tilton, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C-79-01630 WHA (February 15, 2008); 2008 WL 449844.

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Related legal case

Lancaster v. Tilton