Editor’s Note: Excerpts of this story are reprinted with the permission of The Pacific Sun.
Don Specter has spent his entire legal career fighting on behalf of the state’s least sympathetic population: prison inmates. For him, it’s about saving lives. Many of us, on the other hand, don’t care if convicts live in filth with untreated diseases as long as they stay locked up somewhere. We pass increasingly draconian laws to put away more and more people, stuff our prisons to bursting, then build more lockups only to fill those to overflowing as well. We do this, at tremendous expense, in the belief that we are reducing crime. It’s a belief that has no basis in fact, as Specter has shown in court time and again. So while hearts may not bleed for the inmates—even the thousands who are mentally ill and developmentally disabled—in a state that runs a $25 billion budget deficit, Specter contends that our present policies make no fiscal sense either.
But the state, Specter has found, does not respond to logic. He has been battling a series of California administrations in court for more than 30 years in the course of his work at the Prison Law Office. He began volunteering there while still a law student, served as staff attorney for four years, then took over as director in 1984. Since then, he’s expanded the staff from one attorney to 10, keeping the nonprofit organization afloat with grants and monetary awards from the raft of cases the group has won.
When she first started working at San Quentin, there weren’t even windows, says Jeanne Woodford, who started as a correctional officer in 1978 and served as warden from 1999-2004, when she became director of the state Department of Corrections. She’s now on staff at the UC Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice. “The windows were all knocked out of the housing units. It was freezing cold. Staff and inmates were constantly sick with pneumonia. There were sewage spills constantly. The conditions were unbelievable. And as a result of [Specter’s] lawsuits, the state was forced to renovate much of the infrastructure.”
For the last two years, Specter has been named by the Los Angeles Daily Journal as one of the top 100 lawyers in California. He was California Lawyer Magazine’s Attorney of the Year in Constitutional Law in 2009. He recently returned from arguing a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court concerning overcrowding in California prisons, where 155,000 inmates are crammed into a system designed to house 80,000. The teeming overpopulation has made it impossible to provide prisoners with basic healthcare.
I went to see Specter on a drizzly day.
You’ve been fighting the state of California in court for 20 years trying to get [officials] to improve prison conditions caused by overcrowding. You’ve been winning just about every case but they’re kicking and screaming every step of the way. At the same time, they’re desperately looking for ways to reduce the budget deficit. It seems it would be in the state’s financial interest to reduce the prison population.
Right. But it’s not in their political interest. They’re all worried about appearing soft on crime and having that used against them in an election. Former governor [Schwarzenegger] had an opportunity at least twice to settle the case and both times he got cold feet. He acts like he’s the Terminator, like he’s not afraid to do the right thing no matter what the consequences, but on this issue he just chickened out.
Could you talk about what other states have done to reduce overcrowding and how much money they saved?
Some states have sentencing commissions to look at their sentencing structure and make sure that only the highest-risk prisoners are the ones who go to prison. But, in California, that is far from the truth.
Why does California have such a high recidivism rate?
We send 70,000 people back to prison on parole violations every year. We send them back for only a short period of time, so they take up an enormous amount of resources and only stay for an average of 60 days, which does nothing to rehabilitate them or deter them or keep them off the street for any significant length of time. So, there are a lot of things the state could do to reduce the prison population, cut costs and make the public safer.
I’d like you to talk a little more about the various remedies to prison overcrowding. One of the ways it seems nobody is arguing with is releasing the elderly.
And they’re not doing that, either. But, yeah, that’s certainly one of the groups that pose less risk than others. Another group is the technical parole violators—people getting sent back to prison for missing an appointment or failing a drug test. They’re not committing any kind of serious crime. Also, there are a lot of people who go to prison for less than a year and prison is designed to keep people for a longer period of time—so why even send them to prison in the first place? They could stay in the county jail, they could go to work in furlough programs or halfway houses.
Is county jail also the option for technical parole violators?
You could do that, or you could make them do community service, you could put them on electronic monitoring. Or, if they failed a drug test, maybe you should give them treatment for their drug addiction rather than sending them back to prison—that would be a radical notion [sarcastically].
And would these alternatives be more or less expensive than prison?
Prison is the most expensive alternative. During the trial a couple of years ago, probation officials and sheriffs all testified that if you gave the local officials the money you would save by not incarcerating these people and let them develop programs for substance abuse, day treatment centers and increased parole supervision, they could reduce the prison population that way, too.
I do not know what percentage doesn’t belong in prison, but I could tell you that about 20 percent of the prison population is mentally ill. And if you provided them with good treatment in the community, some percentage wouldn’t be there. Right now, about one percent of the population is developmentally disabled and they suffer terribly in prison. It’s doubly bad for them because they’re made fun of, they’re discriminated against, they live horrible lives because they don’t get the help they need to function properly. Developmentally disabled prisoners can’t fill out sick call slips because they can’t read or write. There’s no staff that will help them. They get robbed and beaten because they’re vulnerable.
And you’ve brought cases like these?
We just finished a trial in May in which the court found that this treatment I just described is pervasive throughout the system. The judge issued an order to improve the situation and we’re working with the prison system now to develop a better system.
I’ve known a few people who have volunteered at San Quentin in various capacities and they all seem to get a lot of satisfaction out of working with prisoners.
Well, these guys are regular people that have done bad acts. And I know a lot of people who aren’t in prison who have done bad things, not criminal things, but bad things. So some of them are nice, some of them are not, but a lot of them are very grateful for the services that anybody coming in can provide.