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California: Court Monitoring of Conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison Terminated

On March 21, 2011, the Honorable Thelton E. Henderson, U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of California, issued an order terminating all remaining aspects of federal court monitoring of conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison. In so doing, the court relinquished jurisdiction over a 1990 class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of medical and mental health care, as well as use-of-force practices, at the supermax facility.

In a landmark 1995 ruling, Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F.Supp. 1146 (N.D.Cal. 1995), the court concluded that conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison were so harsh that they violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The court appointed a Special Master at that time, both to assist in the development of a remedial plan and to monitor the plan’s subsequent implementation. [See: PLN, Aug. 1995, p.3; Oct. 1995, p.20; April 1996, p.17].

The monitoring of medical and mental health care at Pelican Bay was ultimately subsumed within the broader monitoring of such care throughout California’s entire state prison system in a separate lawsuit. The latter led, in January 2010, to a controversial statewide prison population reduction order that was upheld by a divided U.S. Supreme Court in May 2011. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

At a March 2011 hearing, the district court over Madrid considered whether the oversight of use-of-force policies at Pelican Bay remained necessary. The court expressed concern that, without oversight, conditions might again “devolve to unconstitutional levels.”
Nonetheless, because the parties agreed that “conditions at Pelican Bay do not currently violate the constitution,” the court concluded – with some reluctance – that it could no longer retain jurisdiction over the case. See: Madrid v. Cate, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:90-cv-03094-TEH.

“When we were litigating Madrid, they were literally killing people on a fairly regular basis with guns” at Pelican Bay, stated Don Specter, director of the Prison Law Office. “That has basically stopped. I have no doubt that a lot of lives have been saved as a result of the case.”

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Related legal case

Madrid v. Cate