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California Death Row Court Monitoring Discontinued

Almost thirty years after it began, federal court supervision over conditions at San Quentin’s death row – the nation’s largest, now housing 685 condemned prisoners – came to an end in April 2009.

A group of death-sentenced prisoners filed suit in 1979 complaining about filthy and decrepit conditions on death row, which at that time held only ten condemned men. They also challenged a classification system that deemed all death row prisoners to be such high security risks that they had to be confined in their cells nearly 24 hours a day.

The suit settled in 1980 when the state agreed to a consent decree that allowed the district court to oversee conditions on death row, which gave the court authority to order improvements in such areas as food, medical care, showers and law library access. The settlement also required prison officials to evaluate condemned prisoners on an individual basis for exercise and visitation privileges comparable to those afforded prisoners in general population.

Over the years, the state was required to address additional violations of the terms of the consent decree, including noise levels, filthy water, and the presence of birds and rodents on death row.

On January 23, 2009, a final inspection of East Block at San Quentin, which houses death row, gave prison staff “high marks” for “striking improvements” at the unit, and Magistrate Judge Nandor J. Vadas recommended that the consent decree be vacated. Steven Fama, the Prison Law Office attorney who represented the death row prisoners, did not oppose termination of the consent decree. Although less than enthusiastic about the progress that had been made, he conceded that conditions on death row were now at least “minimally adequate.”

The district court adopted the Magistrate’s recommendation and the consent decree was terminated on April 14, 2009. On May 1, the court ordered the state to make a final payment of attorney fees to the plaintiffs’ counsel, in the amount of $3,841.04. See: Thompson v. Cate, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:79-cv-01630-WHA.

Additional source: San Francisco Chronicle

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Related legal case

Thompson v. Cate

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.