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Federal Court Orders Release of Prisoner from S.H.U.; Ninth Circuit Reverses

Robert Lee Griffin has been in prison since 1970. In 1979 he was validated as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood ("AB") and placed in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison in California. After publicly renouncing his AB membership, Griffin sued for, and won, a court order for his release from SHU after prison officials refused to let him out.

That was in 2006. Two more court orders followed, in 2009 and 2011, enforcing the 2006 order. But in early 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated all three orders and dismissed Griffin's lawsuit.

Griffin has a long documented history of being the leader of the AB and ordering (or "authorizing") numerous murders and assaults of fellow prisoners, guards, and prisoners' family members. To cope with the threat Griffin presented, prison officials placed him in SHU, where prisoners get only one hour out of their windowless cells each day and their communication is severely restricted. The only way out of SHU for validated gang members is for them to "debrief" (i.e., tell everything they know about gang activities, which exposes them to harsh retaliation), or to become "inactive,' or "retire" from the AB, which AB rules prohibit -- with death being the penalty.

In a habeas corpus petition he filed in 1992, Griffin claimed that although he had "retired" from the AB, prison officials refused to let him out of SHU.

The litigation lasted for years, until in 2006 a district court judge ordered his immediate release from SHU back into the general prison population.

However, at the time of that order, Griffin had been transferred to a federal prison to face federal charges relating to his gang activities. Griffin was convicted and sentenced to another life sentence.

When he was returned to the California state prison system, Griffin was placed back in segregation, albeit not the SHU the 2006 court order mandated his release from.

More litigation followed, with Griffin claiming prison officials were violating the 2006 order by not placing him in general population. Prison officials responded that Griffin's recent federal convictions proved he had not "retired" from the AB, and in any event he was not being housed in SHU, which the 2006 order referenced.

The lower court disagreed with prison officials and twice issued orders to enforce the 2006 order. However, Griffin was still not returned to general population.

The case then went on appeal to the Ninth Circuit who vacated all three orders. In doing so they held the district court exceeded its authority in issuing the 2006 order and that the two subsequent orders were an abuse of discretion.

"The State's first obligation must be to ensure the safety of guards and prison personnel, the public, and the prisoners themselves," wrote the court. They said the 2006 order did not mean that Griffin could stay out of SHU forever and that he could, and did, "earn his way" back.

Specifically noting Griffin's most recent federal convictions for his gang activities, the Court said he could not avoid a return to SHU based on the 2006 order because that order did not say he "could never be returned to the Pelican Bay SHU." See: Griffin v. Gomez, Nos. 09-16744, 11-15373 (9th Cir. 01/28/2014).

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Related legal case

Griffin v. Gomez