Judge Orders End to Brutality at High-Tech Prison


A federal judge, deploring “the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery” of inmates in notorious Pelican Bay Prison, ordered the state Wednesday to discontinue what he called a pattern of brutality and neglect at what was supposed to have been a national model for high-tech security.

The landmark ruling here by District Judge Thelton E. Henderson is expected to have wide impact because other states have looked to Pelican Bay as the prototype prison of last resort for incorrigible prison troublemakers.

The decision also is a warning shot to the Department of Corrections as it embarks on a prison expansion program to accommodate an inmate population expected to explode as the state’s new “three strikes” law is enforced.

In his harsh, 345-page opinion, Henderson said the state has violated the U.S. Constitution by allowing guards to use “grossly excessive” force and by denying inmates adequate medical and mental health care.


But the Carter Administration appointee refused to shut down the prison’s infamous so-called super-max unit, a major target of an inmates’ class-action lawsuit that brought the ruling.

About 1,500 inmates are confined in the unit’s windowless cells, deprived of all but the barest of human contact for periods of up to several years. Henderson said conditions in the unit “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable” and probably inflict psychological harm on inmates housed there for prolonged periods.

But rather than dismantle the facility, the judge ordered the state to remove inmates who are emotionally or mentally fragile. Putting them in such a setting, Henderson said, is akin to “putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe.”

State officials have not yet decided whether to appeal portions of Henderson’s ruling, which gives them four months to develop a plan of reform for the Northern California prison to eliminate brutality and provide adequate medical and mental health care staffing.


Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Lee, who represented the Department of Corrections in the case, called the ruling a “mixed decision” and lauded Henderson for refusing to close the super-max unit, “the most important part of the case.”

“I think people around the country were looking to see whether the use of this new type of lock-down, high-security unit would be permitted to continue,” she said. “The message is that it is permitted.”

But Susan Creighton, one of the lawyers for the inmates, said the state’s claim of partial victory is “like saying that Germany didn’t lose the war because it still existed.”

She and other lawyers for the prisoners said the ruling would put other states on notice that they must incarcerate prisoners humanely, even in a facility like Pelican Bay, which was designed to limit inmate contact and corral the prison system’s worst troublemakers. A federal prison similar to Pelican Bay recently opened in Colorado, and 25 other states have converted prisons into such super-max facilities.


“This is a landmark decision in that the court determined what can and cannot pass muster,” said David Steuer, another lawyer for the prisoners.

Pelican Bay is supposed to house the worst of inmates, those who have joined prison gangs or attacked other inmates. But lawyers for the inmates said they also include prisoners serving relatively short terms for drunken driving or drug offenses. Mentally ill inmates also are confined to the high-security unit because they are difficult to handle.

In his opinion, Henderson recounted the experience of Vaughn Dortch, a car burglar who had a history of mental problems. Dortch bit a guard and smeared himself and his cell walls with his feces. Rather than put him in a shower, guards in the super-max unit reportedly held him down in a scalding bath that gave him second- and third-degree burns.

Dortch, an African American, had his hands cuffed behind his back while the guards kept him in the hot water. A prison nurse said she heard one of the officers say: “Looks like we are going to have a white boy when this is through. . . .”


“The Dortch incident epitomizes all the horrors that go on at this prison,” said Steuer, a partner of the Palo Alto firm of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, which handled the case free of charge along with the Prison Law Office in San Quentin.

The inmates in the super-max facility, known as Security Housing Unit, or the SHU, live in 8-by-10-foot cells. Cell doors are opened by remote control and meals are pushed through a slot in the wall.

Guards armed with gas guns and other firearms monitor the prisoners from a control booth with video cameras, and generally talk to them through a speaker system.

Henderson noted that the prison, located near the Oregon border, used “fetal” restraints on prisoners numerous times in 1991 and 1992, securing inmates’ wrists to their ankles with handcuffs, leg irons and a connecting chain.


One inmate was restrained this way for nine hours. Sometimes inmates in this position also were chained to toilets.

Guards also punished prisoners by confining them naked or partially clothed in outdoor cages the size of a telephone booth during cold weather.

Henderson chided prison authorities for allowing guards to use firearms unnecessarily and at times recklessly.

“In many instances,” he said, “officers resorted first to lethal force because prison administrators failed to supply them with alternative weapons or because prison policies promoted the use of lethal force.”


The judge’s graphic opinion provided several examples in which prison authorities denied inmates medical and mental health care.

Henderson cited the 1992 case of an inmate who complained of a sore back and troubled breathing. A technician gave him an aspirin but refused to take him to the infirmary.

The prisoner later told the technician that his neck hurt and he could not move. Finally, the technician noticed that the inmate was “breathing in a snorting mode” and took him to the infirmary.

Although the inmate was semi-conscious and paralyzed, repeatedly whimpering, “Help me,” the technicians and a nurse thought he was “faking it.” When the prisoner was eventually taken to a hospital, he entered a coma and died from a brain hemorrhage.


The suit was filed in 1991 after the U.S. District Court received more than 300 petitions from inmates alleging civil rights violations.

James H. Gomez, director of corrections for California, said the prison has made several improvements. He praised Henderson for ruling that guards may continue to carry firearms and for allowing prison officials to house minimum- and maximum-security prisoners together.

“It’s been an ongoing process of improvement since the prison opened” in 1989, said Deputy Atty. Gen. Lee.

But Henderson was not impressed with state efforts.


“We glean no serious or genuine commitment to significantly improving the delivery of health care services, correcting the pattern of excessive force or otherwise remedying the constitutional violations . . . " Henderson concluded.


Pelican Bay State Prison

The “super maximum security” prison is entirely automated. About 1,500 problem inmates have virtually no contact with guards or other prisoners and spend 22 hours a day in windowless cells. Opened: 1989 Cost: $277 million Inmates: 3,800