Donald Specter’s PLO
Started the Overcrowding Suit
Sitting in the main visiting room, Donald Specter answers with an easy familiarity questions concerning the organization that he heads, the Prison Law Office (PLO). Each response follows a slight pause for thoughtful reflection. Twenty-five years at the head of the PLO have left Specter well prepared to address inquiries concerning his organization, which is the principle defender of the rights and living conditions for those imprisoned in each of California’s 33 state prisons and numerous satellite facilities.
The low buzz of constant work-a-day noise and activity nearby has seemingly little effect on Specter, who has spent more than a little time behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison, much of it in this same visiting room. This is where he often meets with many of the inmate clients that he has represented during his 29 years at the PLO.
With a slight nod and a half-smile, Specter acknowledges that though his work directly impacts the lives of virtually all of California’s approximately 170,000 male and female prison inmates on a daily basis, many of those same inmates would be hard-pressed to explain just what it is that Specter and the PLO’s 12 staff attorneys have done on their behalf over the years. And this is in spite of the numerous “Notice of Settlement” placards which grace the walls of virtually every room inhabited by inmates throughout the state’s vast prison system.
The placards themselves attest to the PLO’s relentless successes in bringing about often-profound changes in many diverse areas. Those areas include access and assistance for disabled inmates, the timing of Lifers’ parole hearings, access and continuing improvements to dental care and mental health care and the long-running battle over access and quality of medical services and care.
It is the evolution of this last case, a case filed by the PLO in 2001 over unconstitutionally poor health care, that has come to define the 29-year career in public interest law for Specter. For this is the case that has come to be known as the “overcrowding” case, a case that has resulted in a ruling from a special three-judge federal panel calling for the early release from prisons of up to 46,000 California inmates. Specter is the lead attorney for the inmate plaintiffs in the landmark class-action lawsuit.
“Who could really know, in the beginning, the scope and the eventual impact of this case. It has taken on a life of its own,” he commented.
Public interest legal work is commonly recognized as among the lowest-paying areas for attorneys, but I expressed the hope that perhaps this case might bring to the PLO some recognition for its arduous work after the many years its staff has toiled in relative obscurity on inmates’ behalf.
“It (public interest law) is, for the most part, low-profile work,” he said. “But it has been very rewarding for us to know that we have been instrumental in bringing about major improvements in the quality of lives for those imprisoned, that we have managed to make a difference.”
The PLO was founded on New Year’s Day in 1976 by two recent Berkeley law school grads, Paul Comiskey and Mike Satris. They located their offices right outside the S.Q. walls with the intention of providing free legal services to inmates needing assistance with such issues as divorces, property loss and appeals.
The PLO is a non-profit, privately funded organization originally funded through charitable donations by San Francisco organizations, includ-ing the San Francisco Foundation and Catholic Social Services. The current 20-member staff works out of offices in Berkeley and is now solely funded through the attorneys’ fees that are awarded through the courts in the many cases the PLO has won and is currently pursuing.
After graduating from the University of San Francisco, Specter served an internship with the Marin County Public Defender’s Office before joining the PLO in 1980. In addition to managing and directing the legal and administrative operations of the PLO, Specter maintains an extensive appellate practice which has taken him to the hallowed halls of the United States Supreme Court as well as the California Supreme Court on numerous occasions.
The primary function of the PLO today is to identify and litigate cases which affect the confinement and overall quality of life behind bars in California’s prisons. In addition, a wide variety of free self-help and informational material is provided to inmates, including a habeas corpus manual, parolee rights manual, and a personal injury lawsuit packet, plus material regarding divorce, immigration, plea bargains, release dates, worktime credits, guard brutality and more.
“Specter joined the PLO
after working with the Marin
The PLO publishes and periodically updates The California State Prisoners’ Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide To Prison and Parole Law. Specter notes that his office currently receives an average of 100 letters per day from inmates requesting information, assistance and legal advice.
Asked what the future holds for him, Specter replied: “It is important to note that five California Department of Corrections directors have told me that they’re gonna ‘clean things up so you don’t have a job anymore’.”
But the results of the recent “overcrowding” trial would seem to indicate that, within the walls of California’s sprawling prisons, there is still much to do.
With “still plenty of gas left in the tank,” Specter, 58, says he’s looking for a “visiting rights for Lifers’” case to take on, and would also relish an opportunity to weigh in on the “deplorable” state of juvenile prisons.
“There’s still plenty of work to be done,” he said, noting that each year the U.S. Supreme Court chooses a case to hear that allows it to define and lessen prisoners’ rights.
Does this, then, spell trouble for his overcrowding lawsuit if, as is appearing more and more likely, it should eventually wind up in the hands of the nine justices on the Supreme Court?
A STRONGER CASE
“I still expect to win,” Specter says. “We presented a very compelling case which would be hard for the justices to ignore. California’s own governor has declared his prisons in a critical state of emergency due to massive overcrowding. The governor’s proposals actually makes our case stronger.”
“This is a very politically charged issue,” he noted. Specter expects that the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a temporary stay to prevent early releases pending a hearing before the full court, adding, “The court will rule in our favor. I expect to see the inmates released.”