From solitary confinement at Pelican Bay, Jesse Perez sues his guards for retaliation, wins $25,000

This is good news, published in the SF Bay View on Nov. 30th, 2015

Written by Claude Marks, Freedom Archives

On Friday, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded $25,000 in damages to Jesse Perez, who sued guards for trashing his cell in retaliation for his lawsuit against the prison and for his stand against solitary confinement.

Jesse Perez’s legal team – Randall Lee, lead attorney, Jesse Perez, Katie Moran and Matthew Benedetto – enjoys the victory in federal court in San Francisco Nov. 24, 2015. – Photo: Katie Moran

Jesse Perez, 35, is from Colton in San Bernardino County and has been imprisoned since age 15. He was sent to the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay in December 2003 and was held there for 10 years. He took part in all three hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013, protesting prolonged isolation and demanding human rights for prisoners.

Perez’s lawyer, Randall Lee, said the verdict sends “a resounding message that the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are sacrosanct for all of us – even a prisoner in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay.”

The case is based on Jesse Perez challenging the legitimacy of a CDCr gang validation pro se in 2005. He was assigned counsel after he defeated a state dismissal motion and won a settlement in 2012. Perez received a monetary award as well as the right to have his gang affiliation reevaluated.

Similarly, CDCr settled the Ashker case prior to trial, as the state of California wants to avoid having to be held publically accountable and to be subjected to scrutiny and interrogation in court.

In his current civil suit, Perez argued that guards retaliated against him for exercising his right to file a lawsuit and in response to his successful litigating for his human rights and to overturn his baseless gang validation.

Rather than re-reviewing Jesse’s gang validation as was mandated by his court settlement, and just days after the settlement, four officers forced him to strip, removed all of his legal paperwork and trashed his cell. In the process, one officer stated, “You might have been able to win some money from us, but we will make sure that you stay [in solitary] where you belong.”

Jesse did not get all of his property back – especially some of his legal work. He was later charged with a serious rules violation for “willfully obstructing the officers” during that search, for which he was ultimately found not guilty.

Jesse Perez states, “As prisoner activists seeking to make positive contributions to the interests and human dignity of prisoners, we understand that the trappings of power enjoyed by guards represent the biggest obstacle to significant and lasting progress.” By filing the lawsuit, Perez wrote that he sought the “opportunity to shine a public light at trial and rein in what prisoner activists often endure in exercising their constitutional rights: the retaliatory abuse of the department’s disciplinary process by prison guards.”

In his testimony, Jesse stated that he filed this case to defend what minimal human rights he retains as a prisoner. He also said that the officers he sued represent a backlash that prisoners commonly experience when they speak out to access their constitutional rights, since the CDCr will not investigate and reform itself.

Predictably, attorneys for the CDCr tried to discredit Perez’ testimony as well as that of other prisoners who testified in support of his argument. The jury found Jesse Perez and his witnesses credible.

In Jesse’s concluding testimony he made it clear: “Our system of law requires prisoners like me and many others to surrender our freedom, but our laws do not require us, and we refuse to, surrender our human dignity or the minimal constitutional rights that we retain even after crossing the prison gates.

“So for me, we’re here because prison officials decided to punish me for exercising my constitutional right to file a lawsuit against their colleagues. They threatened (my cellmate) Rudy and me. They unnecessarily confiscated important legal documents that I had. They trashed my cell. And then they wrote a false disciplinary report in order to keep me in solitary confinement.

“This is not just about a messy cell or some sort of inconvenience in having to defend against a trumped up RVR. This cell was my whole world for the multiple years that I was in there. It’s the only space where I was able to experience the little bit of life that exists in solitary.

“They didn’t just take my stuff. They took the only possessions that I had. It’s all I had. So to me it was a huge deal.

“I think the officers’ actions also represent the sort of backlash that prisoners often have to hazard when speaking out or exercising their constitutional rights. So to me, we’re also here so that we can both inform and empower the public to deal with this continued corrupt course of conduct. Because in our reality, the CDCR seems incapable or unwilling to do so. So that’s why we’re here.”

Perez’s case is not the only recent instance of guards’ retaliation against prisoners for their basic expression of civil rights and political activism. Since August, inmates in the Pelican Bay SHU say they have been awakened every half-hour by prison guards in a practice that amounts to sleep deprivation.

The policy is known as security and welfare checks, during which prison guards “check on inmates” in segregated housing, including solitary confinement cells, every 30 minutes – 48 times every day – to make sure they are “not injuring themselves or trying to kill themselves.”

Not coincidentally, these checks started just days after prisoners claimed victory in the landmark settlement of Ashker v. Brown, which significantly reduced California’s ability to keep people in solitary confinement – and overturned a system of gang validation used to justify decades of isolation for hundreds of prisoners, often because of their organizing resistance to conditions and their general political beliefs.

Claude Marks, director of Freedom Archives, 522 Valencia St., San Francisco, CA 94110


Jesse Perez prevails in his federal lawsuit claiming retaliation by Pelican Bay officers

by Kim Rohrbach

On Nov. 24, 2015, an eight-person jury unanimously found in favor of plaintiff Jesse Perez in his retaliation case brought against several officers at Pelican Bay State Prison under the Civil Rights Act, Title 42 USC Section 1983.

The jurors agreed that four officers, all of whom were employed as assistant internal gang investigators at the time of the incidents prompting Mr. Perez’s lawsuit, each unlawfully engaged in retaliatory conduct in response to an earlier and eventually successful lawsuit brought by Mr. Perez about a decade ago.

The latter lawsuit contested Mr. Perez’s unlawful confinement at Pelican Bay’s SHU (Security Housing Unit). Settlement negotiations were underway at the time that the retaliatory conduct raised in Perez’s second lawsuit occurred, but the case had not yet settled.

The officers found guilty on Nov. 24 in regard to Mr. Perez’s first cause of action for First Amendment retaliation are Anthony Gates, Daniel Gongora, Eric Healy and Guillermo Pimentel. A fifth officer, Sean Burris, was found not guilty. A sixth officer, J. Prelip, was dropped from the case prior to trial.

Mr. Perez’s summary of his retaliation lawsuit can be read in the Bay View. The docket number for this case is 3:13-cv-05359-VC (N.D. Cal.).

At trial, Perez likened his decade-plus-long efforts at negotiating his way through the legal system to putting together a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle in the dark. He testified that his education, prior to his incarceration as a teenager, ended with the seventh grade.

Yet, despite this handicap, he filed both his retaliation case as well as in his preceding case without the benefit of legal representation. Moreover, he was able to go a great distance in terms of prosecuting each case on his own before he did finally obtain pro bono representation.

After the state challenged Mr. Perez’s first lawsuit protesting his confinement in solitary, Mr. Perez brought an appeal and cross-appeal, and on his own motion was appointed counsel by the 9th Circuit. Katie Moran and Randall Lee from Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale and Dorr, LLP, were assigned to the appellate case. Attorneys Moran, Lee and others from their firm later joined in as Perez’s counsel on his second lawsuit alleging retaliation, and filed a first amended complaint in July 2014.

Mr. Perez had filed his initial handwritten complaint in the retaliation case in November 2013, after exhausting his options for relief through the administrative grievance process available through the CDCR. The CDCR’s administrative grievance process involves no external review by any staff independent of the CDCR, or by any judge, as many readers of this publication may be aware.

The trial on Mr. Perez’s retaliation case, which began Monday, Nov. 16, 2015, wrapped up for the most part on Friday, Nov. 20, at which time jurors began their deliberations. The jurors delivered their verdict late in the day on Tuesday, Nov. 24, returning to court the following morning to hear testimony concerning damages and to decide upon the amount of damages. Mr. Perez was awarded $25,000, which significantly included punitive damages.

Mr. Perez donated the proceeds of his settlement from his earlier case to his mother to help her pay off the mortgage for her home and to an organization located in South Central Los Angeles that works to support youths seeking to attend college.

The jurors in Mr. Perez’s latest matter returned a hung verdict as to a second cause of action for conspiracy levied against defendants Burris, Gates, Gongora, Healy and Pimentel. The jurors, during deliberations, indicated in writing to Judge Vincent Chhabria that they were “hopelessly deadlocked” on this claim in regard to two of the five defendants.

Although the jurors found defendants Burris, Gongola and Pimentel not guilty of conspiracy, they could arrive at no decision as to defendants Gates and Healy. Judge Chhabria declared a mistrial as to the claim of conspiracy against Gates and Healy.

During defendants’ closing arguments on Nov. 20, Jennifer Nygaard, co-counsel for the state Attorney General’s Office, emphasized the fact that Eric Healy, Anthony Gates and Dan Gongola – who, again, were all found guilty with respect to Mr. Perez’s First Amendment retaliation claim – had each been promoted following the incidents leading up to Perez’s retaliation case. As was one of the state’s witnesses in the matter, David Barneburg, or so it had earlier come out during testimony.

Barneburg led Pelican Bay’s Internal Gang Investigation Unit as a lieutenant, starting in 2009. After the events precipitating Mr. Perez’s retaliation lawsuit, Barneburg was made an associate warden at Pelican Bay.

Critical for readers to understand, relative to Mr. Perez’s legal ordeals, is that the CDCR currently defines a “gang” or “security threat group,” in relevant part, as follows:

“[A]ny … organization, association or group of three or more persons which has a common name or identifying sign or symbol whose members and/or associates … engage or have engaged, on behalf of that organization, association or group, in two or more acts which include, planning, organizing, threatening, financing, soliciting or committing unlawful acts, or act of misconduct.” See California Code of Regulations, Title 15, Section 3000 (2015), which contains no definition of the word “misconduct.”

One reason that this is critical is that, until quite recently, those incarcerated within the CDCR’s prisons could be lawfully held in indefinite solitary confinement for alleged “gang” and/or “security threat group” members or associates by CDCR officials, without having committed any violent or criminal act to warrant such designation. Mr. Perez, until his release into the general population at Pelican Bay in 2013, was one of innumerable people in California’s prisons who endured this torture, under regulations that have been successfully challenged under thefederal class-action Ashker v. Brown.

In addition, if Anthony Gates, Sean Healy, plus any third defendant-officer named in Mr. Perez’s most recent lawsuit had been found guilty of the second cause of action for conspiracy, then the question would beg to be asked: How would those defendant-officers not themselves qualify as “gang” members, if one were to apply the relevant language codified in the California Code of Regulations, Title 15, cited above?

The type of abuse raised by Mr. Perez in his retaliation case – e.g., the trashing of his cell and the confiscation of his legal and other papers and the meritless Rules Violation Report issued against him – is unfortunately, in this writer’s experience, by no means unusual. What is unusual is that Mr. Perez has brought the abuse that he suffered to the light of day in court, against formidable obstacles, and has prevailed on his main cause of action for First Amendment retaliation.

Kim Rohrbach volunteers with California Prison Focus (CPF) and the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition (PHSS) and is an advocate for tenants and a paralegal. She and many allies from CPF and PHSS were present in the courtroom during Jesse Perez’s recent trial, taking shifts to maintain a nearly continuous presence there.

 

Prisoners at Colorado’s high-security prison sue for outdoor exercise

Reblogged from: The Denver Post, written by Kirk Mitchell
POSTED: 12/17/2013 04:46:53 PM MST

Three inmates at Colorado State Penitentiary have sued the state Department of Corrections in federal district court, claiming that a tiny, indoor exercise room violates their constitutional rights.

The class-action lawsuit was filed Tuesday on behalf of Ryan Decoteau, Anthony Gomez and Dominic Duran by student lawyers at the University of Denver.

DOC spokesman Roger Hudson said he has not had a chance to review the lawsuit and could not comment.

The lawsuit says more than 500 inmates in solitary confinement at the Cañon City prison have been denied their Eighth Amendment rights, which prohibit cruel and unusual punishment.

“Except when immediately adjacent to the small open grate, inmates cannot feel the wind; they cannot feel the sun on their face; they cannot feel the rain or the snow,” the suit says. “This claustrophobic room contains only a pull-up bar, and there is no opportunity for inmates to run, except in a small circle.”

The lawsuit says inmates must spend 23 hours a day in cells that measure approximately 80 square feet and are allowed to exercise in a cell that is only 90 square feet.

Except for medical and legal visits, inmates in “administrative segregation” are allowed to leave their cells only when they are taken to the shower or into another cell called a recreation room, the suit says.

The DOC moved death-row inmates from the Cañon City prison to Sterling Correctional Facility in 2011 to settle a federal lawsuit originally filed by Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap, in which he complained about the exercise rooms.

Former DOC executive director Tom Clements commissioned a study by outside experts in October 2011 that concluded the “denial of outdoor exercise at CSP violated correctional standards and that this practice is extreme and unlike the operation of any other facility in the United States,” the lawsuit says.

Decoteau, 30, Gomez, 28, and Duran, 29, have each experienced mental and physical problems based on incarceration at CSP of as much as 46 months, the lawsuit says.

Kirk Mitchell: twitter.com/kmitchelldp

http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_24743836/prisoners-at-colorados-high-security-prison-sue-outdoor#ixzz2nolm0Pgn 

Death row inmates sue Angola Prison over ‘extreme’ temperatures

From: The Times-Picayune,
By: Lauren McGaughy, June 11, 2013

Three inmates on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary have filed suit in Baton Rouge federal court against jail officials for what they call “appalling and extreme conditions … as a result of extreme heat” in the facilities. The lawsuit requests that corrections officials work with the warden and jail staff to mitigate “extreme and unsafe” temperatures and humidity in the Death Row facility at the penitentiary, which is more commonly known as Angola Prison.

The lawsuit, filed Monday on behalf of the inmates by the Promise of Justice Initiative, says the conditions prisoners suffer each summer violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eight Amendment.

The defendants are Department of Public Safety and Corrections and specifically its Secretary James LeBlanc, Angola Prison Warden Burl Cain and Death Row Warden Angela Norwood. The plaintiffs are Death Row inmates Elzie Ball, Nathaniel Code and James Magee.

According to the lawsuit documents, the heat index — or how hot “it feels” — on Death Row reached 195 degrees Fahrenheit on more than one occasion in the summer of 2011. Last summer, the index was above 126 degrees on 85 days between May and August, the suit said.

The Advocacy Center, a non-profit organization offering free legal advice, obtained the heat index information through a public records request after being alerted to the temperature concerns by inmates about two years ago. Additional information was added by inmate and visitor anecdotes.

The lawsuit states Angola’s new Death Row facility was constructed in 2008 and outfitted with duct work throughout to provide climate control. However, while visitation rooms, guard towers and offices are air-conditioned, the “tiers” occupied by inmates are only outfitted with fans that “merely blow hot air into Plaintiffs’ cells,” the suit said.

“During the summer, the bars of the cells are hot to the touch and the cinder block walls release additional heat,” according to the suit. Inmates choose to sleep on the concrete “because the floor is slightly cooler than their beds.”

Additionally, clean drinking water is “contaminated with debris” and water from the showers “is scalding hot,” sometimes exceeding 115 degrees during the summer months, the suit said.

All three inmates suffer from hypertension. Ball, 60, is a diabetic; Code, 57 has hepatitis; and Magee, 35, is treated medically for depression. Because of these ailments, all three are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the suit said.

Read the rest here.

ACLU of Utah files federal lawsuit over use of tear gas in prison’s mental health unit

From: Salt Lake Tribune, June 3rd 2013:

ACLU of Utah says gas used in mental-health unit to subdue prisoner spread to enclosed cells.

By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune, Jun 03 2013

The ACLU of Utah filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging constitutional rights of inmates housed in the mental-health unit at the Utah State Prison were violated when tear gas used to subdue one inmate spread into other enclosed cells.

Correctional officers fired tear gas on Aug. 3, 2011, after one inmate refused to return to his cell from a courtyard, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court for Utah. The gas was pumped through air vents into the fully enclosed cells of other inmates, causing burning eyes, lungs and skin. Many inmates thought the wing was on fire.

Read the rest here: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/56406088-78/inmates-complaint-gas-prison.html.csp

Judge Rules That Retaliation Lawsuit Against Department of Corrections Can Proceed

A press release by the ACLU
March 1, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

A federal judge yesterday refused to dismiss an ACLU lawsuit brought on behalf of an ACI inmate who was retaliated against by guards after he publicly criticized Department of Corrections’ mail policies and sought legal assistance from the ACLU. The pattern of harassment against inmate Jason Cook, which included strip searches, loss of his prison job, destruction of his personal property, and disciplinary time in segregation, began after Cook was quoted in a Providence Journal story criticizing a DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. The policy was later rescinded.

The ACLU lawsuit argues that corrections officials’ actions “in retaliating against Cook for publicly criticizing policy changes” at the DOC violated his First Amendment right to freedom of speech “and displayed both deliberate indifference and a reckless disregard of Cook’s constitutional rights.” The suit further claims that the various disciplinary actions taken against him violated Cook’s due process rights.

In court, the Department of Corrections made the troubling argument that Cook had no First Amendment right to speak to the Providence Journal about the policy and therefore his suit should be thrown out. Last September, a magistrate judge rejected DOC’s argument, but the agency appealed that ruling. Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith agreed that the ACLU’s retaliation claims could proceed, and further ruled that Cook’s due process claims should also not be dismissed.

The mail policy at issue that Cook initially protested, and that was ultimately withdrawn after the ACLU intervened, barred family members from ordering books or magazine subscriptions for inmates. Instead, inmates could only obtain publications directly from a publisher with their own funds. The lawsuit is being handled by ACLU volunteer attorneys from the law firm of DeLuca and Weizenbaum.

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown said today: “The DOC’s position that inmates could be disciplined simply for bringing prison conditions and policies to the public’s attention was extremely troubling. We are pleased that the court has rejected it, and that Mr. Cook can proceed with his claims.” A summary of the actions taken against Cook after he spoke out:

ALLEGATIONS OF RETALIATION AGAINST JASON COOK BY DOC OFFICIALS

  • In October 2007, a Providence Journal story quoted Cook criticizing a new DOC policy limiting the written materials available to inmates. A week later, he was fired from his kitchen job under the pretext that he was caught on a video camera stealing state property. He was later found not guilty of the charge.
  • In February 2008, the RI ACLU intervened on Cook’s behalf in the dispute over the new inmate mail policy by writing DOC officials in support of his position. Shortly thereafter, correctional officers conducted a destructive search of Cook’s cell that damaged some of his personal property.
  • After complaining to the DOC’s Office of Inspections about that search, Cook was advised that other inmates in his module with similar complaints should contact the Office. Cook posted a notice to that effect on an inmate bulletin board. A few days later, as a result of that posting, he was disciplined for “engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration and/or activities,” strip searched and taken to segregation. Two weeks later, he was finally given a hearing on the charge, but not allowed to present and/or question any witnesses. In the meantime, the mail policy about which he and the ACLU had complained was rescinded by the DOC.
  • Cook was found guilty of the charge and sanctioned with 30 days in segregation and the loss of good time. At the end of the hearing on the charge, the hearing officer turned off the tape recorder of the proceeding and told Cook that “this is what happens when you get the ACLU involved in our business.”
  • In May 2008, Cook was once again strip searched and thrown into segregation on the grounds that a letter he had written to the Parole Board was “threatening.” He was held in segregation for almost three weeks without a hearing before being released.
  • In September 2008, Cook sent a letter to Corrections Director A.T. Wall protesting the lack of a response to grievances he had submitted. Two days later, Cook was again subjected to a strip search and a cell search where his property was destroyed. Officers also looked through Cook’s legal materials and asked him if he had communicated further with any Providence Journal reporters.

SPLC reaches agreement to address prisoner abuse, neglect at Orleans Parish Prison

From: Southern Poverty Law Center
Dec. 11th 2012

The SPLC has reached an agreement with officials in Orleans Parish, La., to address the brutal and inhumane conditions at the Orleans Parish Prison, where prisoners have endured rampant violence, sexual assaults and neglect.

The federal consent decree outlines steps that Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will take to ensure prisoner safety and adequate staffing of the facility. If approved by the court, an independent monitor will oversee the agreement to ensure compliance. The agreement, the result of an SPLC lawsuit filed in April, also would apply to any new facility that is built to replace the jail.

“We are hopeful the judge will agree that this settlement is in the best interest of all parties involved,” said Katie Schwartzmann, managing attorney for the SPLC’s New Orleans office and lead attorney on the case. “We also applaud Sheriff Gusman and his office for taking the important first step of acknowledging the problems within the jail. While implementation will be difficult, we are committed to improving conditions, and will work with him to do so. We also need the city to work with us and provide the funding to truly fix this jail.”

SPLC clients Byron Morgan and Nicholas Miorana, both prisoners in the Orleans Parish Prison, said they were pleased an agreement has been reached. “I am excited the sheriff has agreed to take a hard look, and fix this jail,” Morgan said. “I hope Mayor Mitch Landrieu will help make the changes as well.”

Miorana added, “Today, I understand what right and wrong stand for. With help from the Justice Department and SPLC, our cries will finally be heard.”
The decree includes the following provisions:

  • Review and monitoring of prison operations by a professional corrections administrator.
  • Comprehensive policies governing the use of force and restraints on prisoners.
  • Documenting and tracking complaints of prison staff using excessive force.
  • A staffing plan that provides enough officers to ensure prisoner safety.
  • A ban on placing teenagers in units where they may have contact with an adult prisoner.
  • Guidelines for providing medical and mental health care for prisoners.

The SPLC lawsuit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, described a facility where widespread violence and contraband – including knives – are the norm. It also noted that the jail is understaffed and that deputies are not only poorly trained and supervised, but are often complicit in the abuses suffered by the prisoners.

The U.S. Department of Justice intervened in the case in September, joining the effort to address the conditions. Three years ago, a comprehensive investigation by the department documented many of the same violations contained in the SPLC lawsuit.

Once the agreement is approved by the court, it will go into effect immediately. However, certain provisions cannot be implemented until the city and the sheriff’s office resolve how to provide adequate funding for the jail. If the city and the sheriff cannot resolve the funding dispute, the funding issue will go to trial on April 4, 2013, before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk.

“April 4 is a long time for the men, women and children in Orleans Parish Prison to wait,” said Schwartzmann. “With Sheriff Gusman committed to reform, we urge Mayor Landrieu to provide immediate emergency funding to support the necessary changes. Every day we wait, the lives of thousands of New Orleanians remain at risk.”

Alabama’s segregation for inmates with HIV faces court scrutiny

From: Reuters
Sept. 17th 2012

By Verna Gates

(Reuters) – Alabama, one of two U.S. states that segregate inmates with HIV from the rest of their prison population, will seek to defend the policy against a class action lawsuit headed to trial in federal court on Monday.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued Alabama in 2011 for what the group contends is a discriminatory practice that prevents most HIV-positive inmates from participating in rehabilitation and retraining programs important for their success after prison.

The state says the civil liberties group has failed to prove that there would be no significant risk of the infection being transmitted to other prisoners if inmates with HIV were fully integrated, according to court documents.

An appeals court upheld the segregated housing policy in 1999, but ACLU attorney Margaret Winter said advances in treatment for HIV infection warranted the court taking another look at the practice.

“It is based on an uneducated view on HIV and how it is transmitted, which really goes back to the dark ages of when it first started and there was hysteria,” she said.

South Carolina is the only other U.S. state that houses inmates with HIV away from other prisoners. Mississippi ceased a similar practice in March 2010 and has since integrated inmates with the infection, Winter said.

Two of Alabama’s 29 prisons have dormitories set aside specifically for prisoners with HIV. A handful of prisoners have been allowed to live and work in non-segregated settings in two work-release programs, Winter said.

Approximately 270 inmates out of the 26,400 in the state prison system have tested positive for the virus and none has developed AIDS, according to Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett.

Read the rest here:

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/17/us-usa-alabama-hiv-idUSBRE88G0KS20120917