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Court Ends Oversight of Pelican Bay Prison Reform

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Concluding that decades of litigation and court oversight has brought much-needed reform to the Pelican Bay State Prison, a federal judge closed the book on a civil rights lawsuit filed in 1990.

"Pelican Bay was once a place where prison officials used force 'for the very purpose of inflicting punishment and pain,'" U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson wrote on Monday, quoting from the case history. "[The Bureau of Independent Review's] oversight of prison personnel investigations and discipline helped change these conditions."

The Northern District ruled on Jan. 10, 1995, that California's corrections department had "failed to provide inmates at Pelican Bay with constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care," and had "permitted and condoned a pattern of using excessive force, all in conscious disregard of the serious harm that these practices inflict."

Over the years, the state developed and implemented a remedial plan, overseen by a court-appointed special master.

In the last 10 years, the court has ordered the special master to scale back his review of correction officers' use of force, as well as medical and mental health services.

The special master recommended, without opposition, ending the last phase of plan - monitoring the corrections department's investigations and disciplinary process - in October 2008.

By Aug. 30, 2010, the government said it had adopted and implemented a statewide use-of-force policy. The parties agreed to end force-related orders and dismiss the case on Jan. 21.

Judge Hendreson notes that that the parties, the Office of the Inspector General and a court expert testified earlier this month about the constitutional violations are unlikely to crop up again if the court withdraws its oversight.

"The court hopes that [the corrections department] will honor its commitment to continue working with BIR [the independent review board], and that it will oppose any effort to dismantle BIR's oversight. But the Court cannot retain jurisdiction to see that this is done. Accordingly, all use-of-force orders in this case are terminated.

Henderson dismissed the case with prejudice and ordered the government to pay a final $5,400 in attorneys' fees and costs for their work in this action.


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