Extending Oversight of Class-Action Settlement Upheld
April 9, 2021, Oakland, CA – Today, a federal court ruled that California’s ongoing violations of the rights of prisoners, including systemic fabrication of information supposedly provided by confidential sources, should be subject to extended judicial monitoring.
The ruling against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) came in connection with a settlement agreement meant to end the state’s unconstitutional practices. The settlement included a two-year period of monitoring by the court, but when the violations continued, the prisoners, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel, asked for a one-year extension, which was initially granted by a magistrate judge. Today, Federal District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied CDCR’s objections to that ruling, ordering that an additional year of monitoring must go forward.
Filings in the case – some of which have been filed under seal, but which include public summaries of constitutional violations – detail CDCR’s abuse of confidential information to return men to solitary confinement. They report CDCR’s systemic fabrication of information supposedly provided by confidential sources – as well as fabrication of the sources themselves. At times, the filings document, this information has been fabricated to replace exculpatory information actually provided by an informant. Information has been altered to appear more damning than it is, and CDCR conclusions have been portrayed as statements of informants, according to the filings. Improper information – such as the constitutionally invalid “gang validations” that were at the heart of the underlying lawsuit – have been transmitted to the parole board, and the court found that such validations have, in fact, been a factor in denying parole. All of these, Judge Wilken said in today’s ruling, violate due process and demonstrate the need for the initial extension of the monitoring period.
“This ruling is a major victory for the class of prisoners like me who suffered in long-term indefinite solitary confinement,” said Paul Redd, a plaintiff in the case recently released from prison. “It’s so important that the court acknowledged the harms from abuse and misuse of confidential informants. In many cases, false information led to denial of parole and people being returned to security housing units. This ruling validates what prisoners have been claiming for decades. I myself have been directly affected by this abuse.” Mr. Redd is also a former hunger strike representative and a signer of the End of Hostilities, which was instrumental in bringing together 30,000 California prisoners supporting the hunger strike. He provided important testimony in support of the bill SB 1064, addressing the flagrant abuse and misuse of confidential information.
Plaintiffs had also sought additional monitoring based on a third systemic constitutional violation. Under the Ashker settlement agreement, people whose safety would be at risk in the general prison population were to be moved from solitary confinement to a “Restricted Custody General Population Unit” (RCGP). Today Judge Wilken agreed that the men placed in the RCGP were denied due process protections.
“This is a huge victory for the Prisoners Human Rights Movement, who have been organizing from behind bars for decades to bring attention to California’s inhumane treatment of people in prison,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Senior Staff Attorney Rachel Meeropol. “For years our clients explained that they were being sent to solitary confinement based on fabricated confidential evidence, but no one believed them. Just this year, Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill SB 1064, which passed both houses of the California legislature and would have significantly curtailed CDCR’s ability to use confidential information in order to return people to solitary confinement. It is time for the governor and the legislature to act to end this abusive practice and to provide some relief to the men who spent years in isolation as a result.”
The settlement agreement explicitly provides for a 12-month extension of the judicial monitoring period if due process violations alleged in the initial complaint are shown to be continuing and systemic, or if such violations arise as a result of CDCR reforms required by the agreement. Today’s ruling that the first extension was warranted comes amidst a pending request for a second extension of the monitoring period, based on evidence that constitutional violations are still ongoing, as well as for remedies for the continued violations. The motion for a second extension of the monitoring period argues that, at this point – five years after the agreement was reached – those imprisoned are entitled not only to an extension of the monitoring period, but also remedies for the underlying, ongoing violations of their constitutional rights.
Ashker v. Governor of California amended an earlier lawsuit filed by then-Pelican Bay SHU prisoners Todd Ashker and Danny Troxell representing themselves. Co-counsel in the case with the Center for Constitutional Rights are Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, California Prison Focus, Siegel & Yee, Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP, Bremer Law Group PLLC, Ellenberg & Hull, the Law Offices of Charles Carbone, and the Law Office of Matthew Strugar.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.
Blake Nelson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com April 8, 2021
New Jersey has agreed to pay almost $21 million to several women who said they were sexually abused while incarcerated at New Jersey’s only women’s prison and to other former inmates, officials announced Wednesday.
The agreement still needs approval from a state Superior Court. If that happens, money will also be set aside for former prisoners who have not yet come forward with claims of abuse, said Oliver Barry, an attorney representing women who filed civil lawsuits.
The settlement would provide more than 20 women who said they were sexually abused in recent years with about $9.8 million, according to Barry.
The agreement will also improve conditions at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Hunterdon County by enforcing officers’ use of body cameras while allowing women “to turn the page on this difficult chapter,” according to a statement by several lawyers involved in the case.
The head of the state prison system said the settlement represents New Jersey’s commitment to running “humane facilities.”
“My administration is ushering in a new era in corrections, with safety and rehabilitation at its core,” Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks said in a statement.
Wednesday’s announcement came a day before Hicks is scheduled to appear before lawmakers to face questions about the January incident.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg told NJ Advance Media the agreement “is just further evidence of an institution in crisis where a culture of abuse has been allowed to fester for years.”
Weinberg said she’s asking state officials to provide more information about officers accused of misconduct and civil lawsuits facing the prison system.
Documents detailing the $20,835,600 agreement were not immediately available.
In addition to the $9.8 million for sexual abuse claims, inmates who suffered verbal harassment could apply for up to $4,500, and other women who have yet to come forward with at least some evidence of sexual abuse would be able to receive up to $250,000, according to Barry.
New cases would eventually be considered by a mediator known as a “special master” who has not yet been appointed, Barry said.
Furthermore, anyone imprisoned in Edna Mahan from 2014 through the present could be eligible for more than $1,000, regardless of whether they were personally attacked, he said. The settlement would also cover attorneys’ fees.
Joseph J. Martinez was accused of abusing female inmates at Springer Correctional Center from the moment they arrived at the facility in October 2016, according to a New Mexico State Police probable cause statement in a criminal case against the former guard.
One woman told police Martinez raped her three times in the first three months she was held there.
The following spring, Martinez approached another prisoner and placed a piece of Suboxone in her eye, according to the statement. After this initial exposure, the inmate told police, Martinez provided her the drug on a regular basis. Once she became dependent on Suboxone — a pain reliever often used to treat opioid addiction — he began to demand sexual intercourse as payment.
The women reported Martinez to police in 2018, according to state police records. But it wasn’t until January of this year, nearly five years after the alleged abuse, that the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office filed criminal sexual penetration charges against him in connection with their allegations.
Attorneys for inmates housed at Springer say such allegations are not isolated. Since 2018, they have filed eight lawsuits on behalf of 11 women, contending officials at Springer fostered an environment that emboldened guards to exploit them with impunity and made them afraid to report the alleged abuse.
The lawsuits preceded the state Corrections Department’s surprising announcement late last month that it plans to shutter the women’s prison in northeast New Mexico. The department’s reasoning: The inmate population is dwindling, and its aging infrastructure is too expensive to maintain.
“Some of you may have heard that the decision to begin planning for [the prison’s] closure is due to inappropriate activities alleged to have occurred,” Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero wrote in a letter to prison employees Thursday. “This is untrue. Whenever and wherever allegations of misconduct are made, immediate action is taken, and bad actors are held accountable.”
But attorneys for the inmates question officials’ commitment to dealing with employees accused of sexual assault and the willingness to hear complaints of improper behavior, noting the allegations indicate a troubling pattern.
“There is a general culture that is really permissive of abuse at the prison,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lalita Moskowitz said recently. “They arise from a culture where sexual assault allegations aren’t taken seriously.”
In a recent interview, Tafoya Lucero declined to say whether she thought the number of sexual assault complaints signaled a problem at the facility.
“Every case is its own individual case,” she said. “Sometimes, when you see an increase [in rape reports], it might just simply indicate that the population feels like there is something they can do, that they feel they are safe to make complaints and no harm would come to a person who makes a complaint.”
“I don’t think the state realizes the extent of this problem or is taking it seriously at all,” countered Justine Fox-Young who, along with co-counsel Erlinda Johnson, represents seven women who have pending lawsuits against current and former Corrections Department employees.
To look at each complaint as an isolated incident, Fox-Young said, is to miss the bigger picture.
“You have to look at them all together to see how gross it is,” she said.
Lack of prosecution
Prison Rape Elimination Act reports at Springer rose from one in 2016 — the last year the facility held male prisoners — to 38 in 2017, the first full year the facility held women.
The purpose of the act, passed in 2003, is to gather and provide information about the prevalence and effects of institutional rape in hopes of informing policy decisions and funding allocations to protect inmates.
Tafoya Lucero said prison officials are quick to hold employees accountable and push for criminal prosecution when warranted, and they would never allow inmates to suffer retaliation for reporting abuse. But public records show most investigations were conducted in-house, and the few that were referred to police rarely resulted in prosecution.
There were 90 Prison Rape Elimination Act reports filed at Springer between 2017 and 2019, according to Corrections Department records, but state police have investigated only eight sexual misconduct complaints at the prison since 2016, according to the agency’s own records.
Martinez, who did not return calls seeking comment, is the only prison employee who has been criminally charged in connection with those complaints.
Eighth Judicial District Attorney Marcus J. Montoya likened inmate abuse cases to domestic violence allegations, noting it’s difficult to convince victims who can’t easily leave their abusers to testify against alleged perpetrators.
“The complications are compounded when you’re an inmate,” he said.
Several state police reports included notes that indicated the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the charges.
But Montoya, who has been the district attorney for over a year, said he couldn’t find any record of those decisions or open cases involving the prison.
Every one of the inmate’s lawsuits said they were scared to report abuse because they’d seen the backlash against others who did.
“Numerous female inmates … who made PREA complaints that were deemed unsubstantiated were later charged with misconduct by NMCD [the Corrections Department] and lost good-time credits and other privileges as a result,” according to one woman’s lawsuit.
Sometimes, the lawsuits say, the retaliation came from other inmates who were receiving special benefits in exchange for sexual favors.
Former corrections officer Christopher Padilla was accused of harassing at least seven women, according to court records and police reports. But he continued working at Springer for three years after the first complaint in 2017. Though he eventually was fired after failing a polygraph test, he was never criminally charged.
According to a 2017 state police report, the 8th Judicial District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue a case against Padilla “due to lack of cooperation from named victims.”
Former inmate Rebecca Martinez said that when Padilla trapped her in a walk-in cooler and threatened to write her up if she didn’t show him her breasts, she tried to make a report via a Prison Rape Elimination Act hotline.
“I felt it might be a little easier to tell someone over the phone that I wasn’t seeing face to face,” she said in a recent interview.
But the number posted in the facility didn’t work, she said.
“I don’t know how many times I called,” Martinez said. “Nobody ever answered.”
Martinez said she finally reported Padilla on March 29, 2017. By the next morning, she said, inmates threatened her with physical violence, adding guards were aware of what had happened.
Padilla could not be reached for comment, and a lawyer paid by the state to defend him against two lawsuits did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Several of the lawsuits say inmates were warned not to talk to Prison Rape Elimination Act auditors who came to the facility to ensure the prison’s compliance in 2019.
The lawsuits claim staffing shortages made it easier for guards to get inmates alone and out of view of cameras. The current vacancy rate at Springer is 28 percent, according to the Corrections Department, but the prison has had a vacancy rate as high as 61 percent at times.
Tafoya Lucero declined to comment on Padilla’s case but repeatedly said the department doesn’t tolerate sexual abuse and always takes action to protect inmates from guards accused of wrongdoing.
Attorney Matt Garcia, now Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s chief of staff, filed the first civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a Springer inmate in August 2018 — nearly two years after the facility became a women’s prison.
In that complaint, the inmate alleged she’d been assaulted by corrections officer Jose Sena.
“Defendant Sena told [the inmate] if she did not give in to his advances he would take it out on her and other inmates,” Garcia wrote in the lawsuit. Frustrated by her lack of compliance, the complaint says Sena sexually assaulted the woman and threatened her with retaliation.
The lawsuit says state police began investigating Sena after the inmate reported him, but the state Department of Public Safety did not produce any records of the investigation in response to a public records request for all sexual assault reports originating from the prison since 2016.
Sena died by suicide about two weeks after being named a defendant in the complaint, according to the state Office of the Medical Investigator. The case was dismissed as a result.
Kate Loewe, an Albuquerque civil rights attorney who regularly communicates with inmates as one of the prisoner representatives on the Duran consent decree — an agreement that settled a decades-old civil suit and forced some of the most significant penal reforms in New Mexico history — said Garcia’s lawsuit on behalf of the inmate shows state officials long have been aware of the problems at the Springer prison.
“The governor has known that Springer was a dangerous place probably since before she took office,” Loewe said. “Her chief of staff filed one of the first sexual lawsuits out of Springer, and there have been so many that followed.”
Lujan Grisham declined to be interviewed for this story, but spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in a recent email that “the governor is of course aware of and deeply concerned by the history of this facility.”
“It’s an unacceptable pattern,” Sackett wrote. “This administration has an unequivocal zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. … Unfortunately this is not the only area where the state inherited a situation where there was seemingly zero accountability and a significant rebuilding or change of direction was necessary.”
The buck stops …
The state has hired contract attorneys from nine law firms to defend itself against the cases, according to records provided by the state General Services Department, and it has already spent about $155,000.
Springer Warden Marianna Vigil and Chief of Security Robert Gonzales are named as defendants in five lawsuits that accuse them of failing to properly supervise corrections employees in a way that kept inmates from harm.
The attorneys representing them didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
Gonzales’ role, the inmates’ lawyers contend, is particularly important. He’s in charge of making sure Prison Rape Elimination Act complaints are investigated and abusers are fired, Fox-Young said.
“He claims he reported every one,” she said. “But we know that’s not true.”
Attorney Ryan Villa said the state’s legal strategy — to claim governmental immunity at the outset of every case — is an extension of the lack of accountability displayed by Corrections Department officials.
Thom Cole, a spokesman for the state Risk Management Division, which hires the attorneys who defend prison officials, wrote the agency “has a legal duty to defend the State of New Mexico and use every available defense, including immunity.”
But Villa — whose client settled her lawsuit against the state for $75,000 earlier this year — argued that path is counterproductive.
“By taking that approach … they send a message to the staff and supervisors that they don’t care what they do in terms of addressing the problem,” he wrote in an email.
A federal judge recently rejected an immunity defense in at least one case, ruling inmates could bring a negligence claim against Corrections Department supervisors who “reasonably should have known about rampant sexual abuse against female inmates at Springer Correctional, and their inaction created a dangerous condition.”
But Villa wrote the issue also is about accountability — and a willingness to address the issue head-on.
“If they took the approach that they are responsible, then maybe they could be proactive and address the staff and their supervisors,” he wrote. “I think there is a culture from the higher-ups of trying to cover these claims up … and discredit the accusers, rather than do a full investigation and find ways to change the culture.”
The California Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the current cash bail system Thursday — a decision that some feel could lead to numerous releases and a more just future for marginalized communities.
In November, about 56% of California voters opposed Proposition 25 and opted to maintain the cash bail system, allowing arrested individuals incapable of posting bail to be detained while awaiting trial. These bails would be determined by the relevant charges and an individual’s criminal history but would not consider an individual’s ability to pay.
However, as a result of the recent ruling, which does not fully eliminate cash bail, judges will have to assess each case individually to determine whether an arrested individual should be released prior to their trial date, according to Jonathan Simon, campus Lance Robbins Professor of Criminal Justice Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. He added that judges will have to consider the arrested individual’s ability to pay their cash bail during the decision-making process.
“Today’s ruling is significant,” said Assemblymember Rob Bonta in a joint statement released Thursday. “The jail house door shouldn’t swing open or closed based on how much money you have in your pocket.”
Individuals who have not been convicted make up more than 70% of the United States jail population, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy organization. With the ruling, many of these individuals could be released, Simon added.
In the process of determining whether an individual should be released, a variety of factors come into play, including potential risk to public safety and the likelihood the person arrested will return for their court date.
These factors, according to an email from campus sociology professor David Harding, can be subjective, especially as ideas surrounding “dangerousness or risk are highly racialized in US society.”
California Coalition for Women Prisoners coordinating committee member Jane Dorotik — who served nearly 20 years in prison after being falsely accused of murdering her husband — said society tends to believe the prison system promotes public safety, those who go to prison are wrongdoers and the system can elicit reflection.
“I am not saying people don’t use the opportunity while incarcerated to reflect on their lives and what got them there, but they do it by the seat of their pants,” Dorotik said, noting the abusive environment within prisons. “They do it not because of the system but because of their own fortitude.”
Describing the system as “demeaning and debilitating,” Dorotik added that the now-opposed cash bail system is unjust for the accused, including many women who find themselves in prison despite having survived domestic violence and rape.
Dorotik’s bail was initially set at $3 million despite having no criminal history. It was later reduced to $1 million, allowing her to pay for her release with financial assistance after 21 days in county jail.
Eventually, the previous bail was scrapped, and it was hiked back up to $3 million, leaving her with no other option but to remain behind bars.
“Having to pay for your freedom and help represent yourself … is a privilege for the rich,” Dorotik said. “And how fair is that?”
Research has also indicated that pretrial detention causes a series of long-term consequences for those arrested, including unemployment, eviction and losing custody over children, according to Harding in the email.
Additionally, Harding noted in the email that those who have been detained while awaiting trial are more likely to plead guilty to avoid jail time, giving them a criminal record that can hinder their ability to find housing and gain a college education, among other opportunities.
Although the ruling has been interpreted by many as a victory for marginalized communities, Simon warned that other means of oppression and inequality will likely reemerge.
“This new process is pushing judges toward releasing people, but it’s also giving them very significant discretion to decide what conditions are necessary,” Simon said. “This new regime of conditions is very likely to develop in ways that will tend toward (reproducing) the same forms of inequality.”
Simon also added that the system should avoid using forms of surveillance, including electronic monitors, on those at home awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, Dorotik called on the court system to stop criminalizing lesser crimes, release more elderly inmates and funnel the large sums of money amassed by the criminal justice system back into the community.
“(The system) does not help anybody,” Dorotik said. “And yet it’s such an accepted thing.”