In the Shadow of San Quentin: An Interview with Prison Law Office Director Donald Specter
by Todd Matthews
If any one of the dozen attorneys working at the Prison Law Office ever needs to be reminded of the importance of their work, they only need to step outside their office door. The non-profit law firm is located just outside the gates of California’s San Quentin Prison, in the shadows of razor wire, guard towers, and the prison’s 5,200 prisoners.
For 30 years, the Prison Law Office has provided free legal services to California state prisoners, with an emphasis on conditions of confinement and medical care. In 2000, the firm filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of prisoners with chronic diseases who suffered medical neglect. The case was settled two years later, resulting in medical care improvements throughout California. The firm has also worked for prison reform aimed to benefit prisoners with disabilities and address overcrowding.
For the past 25 years, attorney Donald Specter has been at the forefront of this work as the firm’s director. PLN recently caught up with Specter to ask him about his work on prison reform.
PRISON LEGAL NEWS: You have focused your law career on prisoners’ rights for nearly 30 years. As I understand it, you joined the Prison Law Office in 1979 as a volunteer, and were appointed director in 1984. What was your original interest in or motivation for pursuing prisoners’ rights issues as an attorney?
DONALD SPECTER: I originally thought about criminal defense as a career, but after a stint as a law student at a public defender’s office realized I wasn’t cut out for that line of work. However, to get to the public defender’s office I had to travel past San Quentin every day. After law school, I saw a volunteer opportunity to provide legal assistance to San Quentin prisoners. I jumped at the chance.
PLN: What was the Prison Law Office like in terms of staffing and number of cases handled when you joined in the early-1980s versus today? How has the law office responded to the ever-growing number of inmates in California prisons over the past two decades?
SPECTER: When I started working at the Prison Law Office, it was staffed by one other attorney, who co-founded the organization. When he left in 1984 there were four lawyers, and now there are 12, including myself, plus several legal assistants, a policy advocate and intermittent law students. Our office has also been affected by the overcrowding crisis in California’s prisons. Even with a larger staff, we receive more requests for assistance than we can possibly handle. Some days we receive more than 100 handwritten letters from prisoners throughout the state.
PLN: When you look back at the law firm’s work, which two or three cases, decisions, or areas of reform would you consider to be ‘landmark’ and heavily involved the work of the Prison Law Office?
SPECTER: Some of the more important cases have been Madrid v. Gomez, a highly publicized case challenging conditions in the supermax SHU and excessive force; Pennsylvania v. Yesky, a case in the Supreme Court holding that the American with Disabilities Act applies to prisons throughout the country; Farrell v. Tilton, which resulted in a consent decree over virtually all of the state’s juvenile facilities and led to a dramatic depopulation; Plata v. Schwarzenegger and Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, which respectively involved challenges to the medical and mental health care systems in California’s prisons, both of which are still in the remedial phase, with the Court appointing a Receiver in Plata; finally, we just ended a trial in Plata and Coleman in which we have argued that the Court should release 52,000 prisoners due to overcrowding. [Editor’s Note: After this interview was conducted the court ruled in favor of the prisoners. That ruling is reported in this issue of PLN.]
PLN: When someone incarcerated in a California prison seeks out the Prison Law Office for assistance, how do they learn about the firm?
SPECTER: There are notices of our cases all over the prisons with our address so it’s not hard for prisoners to know where to write for help.
PLN: What are the most common reasons for a prisoner to contact your office?
SPECTER: The most common reason prisoners write to us is for health care related issues. That’s why we have spent so much of our resources in that area.
PLN: How many of those contacts turn into cases your firm will take on?
SPECTER: We try to use impact litigation as much as possible so we don’t handle very many individual cases. We provide direct assistance in only a very small percentage of cases.
PLN: Describe the areas of prison and jail reform that need the most work and are currently being pursued by the Prison Law Office?
SPECTER: At the moment, the most pressing issue is overcrowding. It is making it impossible for the state to provide the basic services to prisoners, and to comply with court orders in many different areas.
PLN: What keeps you motivated to continue in the field of prisoners’ rights?
SPECTER: I’ve wondered about that myself. The opportunity to end human misery and suffering for people who have no power is a big part of it, as is the desire to stop the state from abusing its authority. The other aspect of this field is that it’s always changing and there are always new and interesting issues that arise.
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