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Berkeley Judge Shakes Up Prison Guards, Governor

Tuesday July 27, 2004

The first public official to pose a serious public challenge to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger lives—where else?—in the City of Berkeley. 

Last week, Senior United States District Judge Thelton Henderson, a longtime Berkeley resident and a UC Berk eley and Boalt Hall graduate, threatened a federal takeover of the California Department of Corrections (CDC) and pointedly requested a meeting with the governor “to discuss the state’s continued non-compliance with [the judge’s] remedial orders” concerning inmate abuse and corrections officer discipline in the state’s prison system.  

Henderson has had a continuing interest in conditions in California’s prison system since at least 1995, when he ruled in favor of inmates charging abuse by prison guards at Pelican Bay State Prison near the Oregon border, California’s notorious “most violent” maximum security facility. 

In recent years, the CDC has been charged with numerous incidents of officer shootings and beatings of inmates, as well as being charged with cover-ups of those incidents. Most recently, State Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) released a videotape of the beating, kicking, kneeing, and pepperspraying of two unresisting youth prisoners by guards at the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facil ity in Stockton earlier this year. The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office and the office of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer both declined to bring charges against the guards following that incident, stating that there was “no reasonabl e likelihood of conviction” of the guards in a California courtroom. 

The immediate target of Henderson’s wrath was a recent agreement between the Schwarzenegger administration and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA), in which t he prison guards’ union gave up scheduled pay raises in this year’s state budget in return for a greater say in the running of the state’s prisons. Schwarzenegger has crafted several such private money-deferral agreements with state organizations in an effort to balance the budget. 

But in a letter sent last week to Schwarzenegger’s Legal Affairs Secretary Peter Siggins and to Roderick Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, Henderson expressed his “disappointment and concern” with the agreement, noting that a a recent federal investigation into the California prison system found a “pattern of interference by the CCPOA with investigations [into prison problems] and employee discipline.” The judge added that “bad investigations, a co de of silence, and the failure to discipline correctional officers has been condoned for many years by the highest level of California officials. ... Despite these findings, the [Schwarzenegger] administration proposes...[to] give up numerous and importan t management prerogatives to” the prison guards’ union.  

Stating that he is “resolved to correct [these] serious problems,” Henderson said that “if the State of California is no longer willing to manage the necessary corrective actions, I must consider t he appointment of a receiver over” the Department of Corrections. 

It was a stunning laying-down-the-gauntlet from a federal judge long known for far-reaching rulings that challenge entrenched authority. 

Legal Affairs Secretary Siggins denied that the Sc hwarzenegger administration was turning over too much authority for management of the state’s prisons to the prison guards’ union, stating that he was “both shocked and disappointed” by the judge’s letter. “We hope to craft a process that results in timely, fair, and effective investigations of inmate abuse and imposition of just punishment when called for,” he said. 

In 1995, Henderson issued what is considered a landmark ruling concerning Pelican Bay State Prison in Madrid v. Gomez, in which he held in part that “a pervasive pattern of excessive force against inmates violated the Eighth Amendment.” A “near-riot” occurred while Henderson was visiting Pelican Bay in September of 1993 during investigations leading up to that decision, and he and several of his staff members had to lie on the prison yard grounds with inmates while prison guards brought the prison under control. The United States Attorney’s office in San Francisco later charged that the guards knew of the near-riot in advance but allowed it to go on, and said that the “event was staged to show Judge Henderson that Pelican Bay is a dangerous place, and that he should not interfere with the guards in running the prison.” Two Pelican Bay prison guards were later convicted in federal court of conspiracy to violate civil rights and sentenced to more than six years in connection with that case. 

Henderson’s most notable decision came in November of 1996, when he issued a temporary restraining order against the recently-passed Proposition 209, the citizen initiative which outlawed affirmative action in California state agencies. Henderson’s ruling was later overturned by a three-judge federal appellate panel. 

In other rulings, Henderson has enjoined federal agencies from tuna import practices that allowed the slaughter of dolphins (1990), ruled in favor of Vietnam veterans who charged that the Veterans Administration was improperly denying their claims of exposure to the cancer-causing jungle defoliant Agent Orange (1989), held that the Defense De partment violated the equal protection rights of gay men and lesbians by subjecting them to greater security clearance scrutiny (1987), and overturned the conviction of San Quentin Six inmate Johnny Spain (1986). 

Henderson was born in Shreveport, Louisia na and raised in the Watts section of Los Angeles. In high school, he describes himself as being a member of “a bunch of tough black kids...that had intimidated all coaches” while playing on the school’s football team. He credits his mother and high school teachers with helping turn his life around, and he later played football at UC Berkeley, graduating with a B.A. in political science in 1956 and obtaining a law degree from Boalt Hall in 1962. In between, in 1960, he joined the Bay Area’s African American Association, a black nationalist theoretical group that included such diverse members as later-Congressmember Ron Dellums and later-Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. He was an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the United States Justice Department from 1962 to 1963, was assistant dean of the Stanford Law School from 1968 through 1977, and was appointed U.S. District judge by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.