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Behind Coleman v. Schwarzenegger - Profile of Prison Law Office attorney Donald Specter

Behind Coleman v. Schwarzenegger

September 30, 2009

Corrections Policy Examiner

Michael Hamden (

Donald Specter: attorney in the public interest

As many know, California’s prison system is grossly overcrowded and there have been repeated legal findings that prisoners are treated inhumanely. In fact, people who have the misfortune to be locked-up in California are systematically subjected to the “wanton” infliction of deprivation and pain without any justification. Worse yet, these conditions have existed for years, becoming gradually worse with the adoption of draconian prison sentences and the perennial failure of the legislature to adequately fund the Department of Corrections. Consequently, a federal court recently found that the prison system is housing almost twice as many people as it was designed for. The court further found that, shockingly, one preventable death occurs each week because crowding is so bad that basic health care services are simply inadequate. Yet, California permits these conditions to persist.

In a decades-long struggle to bring attention to these matters and to right these wrongs, a distinguished lawyer has dedicated his career. Attorney Don Specter, executive director of the highly reputed Prison Law Office, has fought the horrors of life in California prisons for almost 30 years.

Born in New York City in 1952, Don’s family soon moved to Connecticut, where he spent his formative years. At age 18, Don matriculated at New College in Sarasota, Florida. Focusing on studies in economics, he graduated in 1974 with a B.A. degree. Specter returned home and enrolled in the University of Connecticut School of Law. Dissatisfied with the law school experience and unsure of the direction he would take in life, Don decided to take some time off from academic pursuits and traveled to the west coast. He spent time with a friend in San Francisco, a part of the country he liked very much. In fact, he soon found himself enrolled in law school at the University of San Francisco. By 1978, Don had earned a degree as a juris doctor and was preparing to practice law.

Meanwhile, in 1976, two graduates of the University of California opened a law practice on a shoe-string budget. The Prison Law Office was situated just outside the gates of San Quentin Prison in a house that served the seat-of-the-pants practice. Adopting the novel objective of ensuring humane, constitutional conditions for people confined in juvenile and adult correctional facilities, the pair soon learned that they had undertaken a herculean task. In fact, by the time Specter joined the firm in 1980, only one of the founding partners remained.

When a prisoner was denied necessary medical attention and suffered a serious injury as a result; when an inmate suffered bodily harm because officials failed to protect him from a known threat of violence; or when an overzealous guard crossed the line and maliciously beat a prisoner causing grave physical injury, Specter and the Prison Law Office would champion the cause. When cases could not be settled, they were tried in a court of law. Don’s clients prevailed often enough that the firm was able to keep the doors open, but only just.

As you might imagine, very few prisoners can afford to pay a lawyer. Don and his colleagues nonetheless represented these people with the understanding that the lawyers would be paid only if they won the case. And when they won, the money was almost always paid by the unsuccessful defendants under a civil rights statute that allows the “prevailing” party to recover “reasonable” attorney fees from the other losing side in a law suit. But it’s difficult to win a lawsuit in which a prisoner is suing a correctional officer for money. Often, the case devolves into a swearing contest and juries almost always credit an officer’s testimony over that of an inmate. In successful cases, monetary awards to compensate the prisoner for the harm wrongfully inflicted tend to be modest, as are attorney fee awards. Had it not been for the generosity of a civic-minded foundation and a multi-year grant it awarded the Prison Law Office, the venture might have failed.

When the remaining founder left the office to practice in the private sector in 1984, Don took up the burdens of managing the nonprofit firm as its executive director. While funding continued to be a pressing issue, Don maintained an active case load and was involved in ground-breaking litigation. For instance, Specter and his colleagues successfully challenged deplorable physical conditions and the psychologically devastating trauma inflicted on prisoners kept in isolation for 23 hours a day in small cells for periods that lasted months, and in some cases, years.* Specter also served as lead counsel and successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court that federal legal protections for the disabled apply to prisoners.**

More recently, litigation brought by Specter and the Prison Law Office, together with private attorneys*** and law firms, captured national attention when a three-judge panel found California’s prison system is dangerously overcrowded, it inflicts cruel and unusual punishment on the people it incarcerates, and it has been deliberately indifferent to the needless death of scores of prisoners.† The court ordered the state to reduce the prison population from 190% to 135.7% of capacity. At the current rate of admissions and releases, and unless California can find additional prison beds, the population will have to be reduced by some 40,000 prisoners over the next two years.

California has been drifting toward this crisis for more than a decade. The Coleman case, which was filed in 1991, brought attention to the wretched prison mental-health care system. The case went to trial in 1993. In 1995, the trial court announced its finding that system violates the U.S. Constitution and ordered substantial improvements. The State of California failed to comply and was repeatedly called to account for its inaction. Some 77 orders were entered against the state since 1996. Still, California resisted.

In a companion case which challenged the adequacy of health care throughout the prison system, the State entered into an agreement in 2002 to take remedial action. The agreement was formalized by the court.†† And still, California failed to meet its commitments or constitutional standards.

By 2006, Specter and other counsel for the plaintiff class had come to the conclusion that prison overcrowding would make it impossible for California to come into compliance with its legal obligations. The governor reached the same conclusion, declaring a “state of emergency” in California’s prison system due to “severe overcrowding” which causes a “substantial risk to the health and safety” of prisoners and officers, alike. That declaration was challenged by the prison guard’s union, but a state appellate court credited evidence of prison conditions that pose “extreme peril to the safety of persons and property.” †††

It was as a result of these circumstances that a three-judge panel of the federal court entered its carefully considered, well reasoned order requiring California to develop a plan to reduce its prison population substantially over the next two years. And still, California resists.

Under Specter’s stewardship, the Prison Law Office has flourished. It employs some 12 lawyers, a lawyer who advocates solely for juvenile justice, 5 legal assistants, and 3 people who provide administrative support. Specter boasts that all are willing to go the extra mile, even when it means working long nights and weekends. And the firm has moved from its humble quarters outside the gates at San Quentin Prison into its own building in Berkeley.

Prisoners, their families, and the law-abiding citizens of the state can continue to count on Specter and his colleagues to persist in their efforts to enforce the law, as they have done for some 18 years. That kind of dedication is rare, particularly in light of the modest financial compensation this public service advocate receives. But his colleagues have been generous with praise and accolades. For instance, Don has been the recipient of an award presented by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the California Coalition for Mental Health, and he received similar recognition from the Association of Retarded Citizens in California. In 2001, Don was recognized as among the 100 most influential lawyers in the state, and in 2006, Specter was named one of California’s Lawyers of the Year – an honor he shared with two other attorneys. Indeed, at the end of September, 2009, Don Specter was again named among 100 of the most influential lawyers in California. And small wonder. Having devoted his career to advocating humane treatment for the least powerful, most reviled among us, Specter has demonstrated a profound commitment to the protection of vulnerable people, the rule of law, and fulfillment of the highest aspirations of the legal profession.

* Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146 (N.D. Cal. 1995)(injunctive relief governing California’s Pelican Bay State Prison).

** Pennsylvania Dept. of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 118 S.Ct. 1952, 141 L.Ed.2d 215 (1998)(Americans with Disabilities Act applies to prisoners).

*** Private attorneys and law firms include, most notably, Michael Bien and Rosen, Bien & Galvan, LLP.

† Coleman v. Schwarzenegger, ____ F.3d ____, No. CIV S-90-0520 LKK JFM P, slip op. (E.D.CA & N.D.CA, 4 August 2009)(three-judge panel).

†† Plata v. Schwarzenegger, ___F.3d___, No. C01-1351 TEH, slip op. (N.D. CA. 4 August 2009).

††† CCPOA v. Schwarzenegger, 163 Cal. App. 4th 802, 818 (Cal. App. Ct. 2008).

This article originally appeared on at the following link, and is posted on PLN with the author's permission.

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