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In Memoriam: Jane Kahn (1954-2018)

by Paul Wright

For the past 15 years, the San Francisco law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP has represented Prison Legal News and its parent organization, the Human Rights Defense Center, in censorship and public records cases in California, Nevada and Arizona, and co-counseled other cases with us. Over the years I have gotten to know many of the fine attorneys at RBGG, and have appreciated not only their skill and legal acumen but also the deep personal commitment they bring to issues involving human rights in general and prisoners’ rights in particular.

Jane Kahn worked at RBGG from 1997 until her retirement in 2018. She was born in 1954 in St. Louis, Missouri and died in her sleep of brain cancer, at home with her family, on December 26, 2018. Jane graduated from the UC Berkeley School of Law in 1983 and worked for the Legal Aid Society of Marin County and the Prison Law Office in the 1990s before joining RBGG. Her husband, Michael Bien, and one of her three sons, Ben Bien-Kahn, also work at the law firm. 

Jane’s greatest legal contributions in terms of impact on prisoners’ rights were in Armstrong v. Davis, a class-action suit on behalf of California prisoners with disabilities, which was one of the first cases holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to prisons, and Coleman v. Brown, a landmark lawsuit that held mental health care for California prisoners was unconstitutional and caused by systemic overcrowding.

“She walks into some prisons, and people start yelling, ‘Jane Kahn’s in the house, Jane Kahn’s in the house,’” said RBGG partner Gay Grunfeld. “And it’s not only because she won these huge victories in court, it’s because she had an individual connection with our prisoner clients as people.”

Over the years that I knew Jane, I was always impressed not only by her brilliance as an attorney but also the compassion she brought to her work. Nothing exemplified that more than the indignation she felt when it was disclosed that California prison officials were placing prisoners in individual cages for court-mandated mental health treatment sessions. 

In addition to her legal efforts, Jane was a founding board member of the Prison University Project, which provides liberal arts college degrees to prisoners at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California. She also advocated for the homeless through Hamilton House and Religious Witness with Homeless People, and against the death penalty through Death Penalty Focus and the Death Penalty Clinic at UC Berkeley. It is hard to overestimate the impact that Jane’s work and advocacy has had on the lives of California prisoners, both in court and out.

Her husband summed it up, stating: “Jane saw the law and her work as something that had to move the ball of social justice forward, of remedying discrimination, remedying things she saw were failures in our society. She touched a lot of people.” He added, “She was a powerful leader in humanizing clients and helping people understand the severity of their suffering and the enormity of their conditions.”

“Jane’s life taught us all that we need to keep fighting against the inhumanity that society too often inflicts on those who are particularly vulnerable, and that we do so with compassion for the individuals we represent,” said Prison Law Office director Don Specter.

Jane is survived by her husband Michael; sons Ben, Max and Joey; daughters Katy and Allison; sisters Debi and Julie; and her brother Michael. 

“She was a fighter, shoving her shoulder into the immovable force that is the prison system and homelessness, and always leaping to defend those she loved. With that same vigor, she fought her disease, showing bravery and strength until her last day,” her son Joey wrote in an obituary published in the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Jane will be greatly missed, and everyone at HRDC offers their condolences to her family, friends and colleagues. 

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