Employment + Labor and Litigation
San Francisco, CA, April 26, 2007 – In a case alleging that correctional officers at a California prison conspired to permit and then conceal an attack by a prison gang on an unaffiliated inmate, Morrison & Foerster negotiated a settlement in which the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation will pay $210,000 and provide medical and psychiatric care to the injured inmate in exchange for the case being dropped. Morrison & Foerster, assisted by the former acting warden of Salinas Valley State Prison, took the case pro bono to address civil rights violations resulting from the so-called “Code of Silence” under which correctional officers conceal, rather than report, incidents of inmate abuse, as well as the practice of using so-called “peacekeepers” — influential gang member prisoners — to help keep order within the prisons in exchange for illegal favors. Settlement negotiations began after Judge Susan Illston of the Northern District of California held that the inmate, Gregory Tillis, had stated a viable claim for violations of his Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment. The case is Tillis v. Lamarque, et al., Case No. 04-3763 SI (N.D. Cal.).
The lawsuit stemmed from an August 14, 2003, incident at Salinas Valley State Prison, located in Soledad, California. During a lockdown, Mr. Tillis was beaten unconscious by four members of the Kumi Gang, a Bay Area gang active in the state prison system. The attack was coordinated with the assistance of one of the prison’s control booth officers at the behest of a Kumi gang leader, or “shot caller,” who was upset that Mr. Tillis did not want to share a cell with a Kumi gang member. In a practice known as “popping doors,” the officer allowed the gang-affiliated inmates out of their cells to carry out the beating. Following the attack, Mr. Tillis was left on the floor of his cell for hours, where he lapsed in and out of consciousness while his pleas for assistance from on-duty correctional officers went unanswered. It was not until the afternoon shift change that he was finally taken to the prison infirmary, and ultimately to the Natividad Medical Center for treatment. The lawsuit alleged that the control booth officer conspired with other guards on the morning shift and with gang members to cover up the attack and falsify reports during the internal investigation that followed. The control booth officer was eventually prosecuted by the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office for his role in assisting the Kumi Gang with the attack. As a result of pleading guilty to two of the charges levied against him — false report filed by peace officer and assault with great bodily injury — the officer was himself incarcerated for several years.
“We are pleased to have played a role in finally getting Mr. Tillis the long-awaited medical care that he deserves and needs as a result of this brutal attack,” said Brooks Beard, a partner at Morrison & Foerster who, along with associate Chris Babbitt, represented Mr. Tillis. “This incident is just one example of what happens when a Code of Silence and the use of peacekeepers is tolerated within the California prison system. We hope that the size of the settlement in this case reflects the level of seriousness that the Department of Corrections attaches to these issues, and that it will result in a renewed and vigorous effort to address such improper conduct.”
Edward Caden, the acting warden of Salinas Valley State Prison at the time of the attack, agreed. “Rooting out the Code of Silence and eliminating the use of peacekeepers are critical steps to solving the problem of inmate abuse. The vast majority of correctional officers are stand-up men and women who take their legal and ethical obligations seriously. But when the bad apples come along, they have to be dealt with, and the only way that can happen is if incidents like this one are promptly — and honestly — addressed. The system just breaks down when cover-ups are tolerated, and sometimes it takes a federal case to bring these important issues to light. In my 30 years in correctional work, this is the largest settlement I’ve seen from the Department of Corrections — and you can bet it will get the attention of the folks in Sacramento.” Caden, who retired from Salinas Valley State Prison in 2004, remains active in campaigning for prison reform.
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