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THOMPSON v. GOMEZ

December 23, 1997

MAURICE S. THOMPSON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
JAMES GOMEZ, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: LEGGE

 A consent decree has been in effect since 1980 governing certain conditions of confinement for condemned prisoners in the San Quentin State Prison. *fn1" Defendants have filed a motion under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (the "PLRA") for termination of the prospective relief provisions of that consent decree. The practical effect of that motion would be to terminate the remainder of the decree in its entirety. Plaintiffs oppose the motion, and have filed a counter-motion to declare the termination provision of the PLRA unconstitutional. *fn2" This court has reviewed the record and the authorities pertaining to the motions, the history of the consent decree and its amendments, and the reports of the Monitor.

 I.

 This Consent Decree and the PLRA

 The plaintiff class is composed of prisoners of the State of California who are committed to the custody of the California Department of Corrections (the "CDC") under sentence of death, and are confined at San Quentin State Prison. The defendants are the Director of the CDC and the Warden of San Quentin.

 Plaintiffs commenced this action in July 1979. In October 23, 1980, the parties entered into a consent decree, which was approved by Judge Weigel, requiring a number of corrective actions, including modifications in housing, treatment, and privileges of the plaintiff inmates. The required modifications were to be implemented within a one-year period.

 Since the entry of the consent decree there have been investigations, hearings, court proceedings, and other activities in this case -- including referral to a special master (the "Monitor") in 1985. *fn3" An unanticipated larger number of condemned inmates housed at San Quentin has resulted in ever-changing conditions, which has precluded full compliance with the consent decree. The compliance period was changed from one year to indefinitely.

 The Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed by Congress and signed into law on April 26, 1996. Pub. L. No. 104-134, 110 Stat. 1321, §§ 801-810 (Apr. 26, 1996). The PLRA made substantial changes to civil rights litigation brought by prisoners under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and other federal laws. Section 802 of the PLRA, which consists of amendments to 18 U.S.C. § 3626, specifically provides for the termination of consent decrees.

 One purpose of the PLRA was to limit the intrusion of the federal courts into the supervision of state prisons. Broadly speaking, Congress stated its intention that federal courts should intrude into state prison conditions only where necessary to correct a federal right, and not to otherwise interfere in the state's operations of its prisons.

 The PLRA provides that consent decrees shall not be entered by federal courts without satisfying certain conditions.

 
In any civil action with respect to prison conditions, the court shall not enter or approve a consent decree unless it complies with the limitations on relief set forth in subsection (a) [of 18 U.S.C. § 3626].

 18 U.S.C. § 3626(c)(1).

 The PLRA further defines limits to the power of federal courts to order prospective relief:

 
Prospective relief in any civil action with respect to prison conditions shall extend no further than necessary to correct the violation of a Federal right of a particular plaintiff or plaintiffs. The court shall not grant or approve any protective relief unless the court finds that such relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right. The court shall give substantial weight to any adverse impact on public safety or the operation of a criminal justice system caused by the relief.

 18 U.S.C. § 3626(a)(1)(A).

 The PLRA defines "prospective relief" as "all relief other than compensatory monetary damages." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(g)(7). The PLRA defines "relief" as "all relief in any form that may be granted or approved by the court, and includes consent decrees ...." 18 U.S.C. § 3626(g)(9).

 
By requiring courts to grant or approve relief constituting the last intrusive means by curing an actual violation of a federal right, the provision stops judges from imposing remedies intended to effect an overall modernization of local prison systems or provide an overall improvement in prison conditions. The provision limits remedies to those necessary to remedy the proven violation of federal rights. The dictates of the provision are not a departure from current jurisprudence concerning injunctive relief [which provides that] ... injunctive relief must be no broader than necessary to remedy the constitutional violation.

 H.R.Rep. No. 21, 104th Cong., 1st Sess., pt. 2, p. 34 (1995) (citations and quotations omitted).

 The term "federal right" in the PLRA's termination provisions does not include any rights conferred by consent decrees that provide relief greater than that required by federal law. Plyler v. Moore, 100 F.3d 365, 370 (4th Cir. 1996), cert. denied 138 L. Ed. 2d 217, 117 S. Ct. 2460 (1997).

 II.

 The Termination Provisions of the PLRA

 The provisions of the PLRA with which we are immediately concerned here are those contained in 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2) and (3). They provide as follows:

 
(2) Immediate termination of prospective relief.--In any civil action with respect to prison conditions, a defendant or intervener shall be entitled to the immediate termination of any prospective relief if the relief was approved or granted in the absence of a finding by the court that the relief is narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.
 
(3) Limitation.--Prospective relief shall not terminate if the court makes written findings based on the record that prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of the Federal right, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and that the prospective relief is narrowly drawn and the least intrusive means to correct the violation.

 The court will first consider the issues raised in defendants' motion to terminate the decree, and plaintiffs' opposition thereto; and will then consider plaintiffs' counter motion to declare the termination provisions unconstitutional.

 III.

 Defendants' Motion and the Record

 Defendants' move to terminate four remedies provided in the decree. Specifically, they are those concerning (1) noise, (2) access to legal materials, (3) classification of prisoners, and (4) group religious services. The termination of these four remedies is contested by plaintiffs, but plaintiffs do not contest that the remaining prospective remedies of the decree are subject to termination. Therefore, if defendants prevail on those four remedies, the remainder of the consent decree is in essence terminated.

 Defendants' motion is based upon 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(2), and defendants' arguments are that each of the four remedies was not and is not necessary to correct the violation of any federal right; and that no findings were made by the district court that the remedies were narrowly drawn, extended no further than necessary, and were the least intrusive means necessary to remedy the violation of a federal right.

 It is apparent from the language of subsection (2) that this court must examine the state of the record at the time the consent decree was entered. No additional evidence is necessary or appropriate in connection with that retrospective examination. *fn4"

 However, plaintiffs also invoke subsection (3), which provides that the prospective relief should not be terminated if this court makes written findings "based on the record" that the prospective relief remains necessary to correct a current or ongoing violation of a federal right. Plaintiffs argue that under subsection (3) the court has the power to conduct addition hearings, or to remand the issue to the Monitor for further findings and recommendations.

 This raises the question of whether "based on the record" in subsection (3) means the record that existed at the time of the consent decree, or requires an additional record encompassing present circumstances. Defendants argue that the record should be limited to that developed in the original consent decree proceedings. Plaintiffs want a new hearing on the present circumstances. This court believes that this procedural question depends upon whether the record now before the court is adequate for the court to make the determinations required by subsection (3). If the existing record is not adequate to determine present circumstances, subsection (3) gives the court the power to supplement the record by taking further evidence. The relevant record, and the arguments with respect to it, must therefore be examined under each of the four prospective remedies in dispute.

 IV.

 The Noise Remedy

 This remedy was not a part of the original consent decree. In 1988 the Monitor recommended a finding that the noise levels in East Block were excessive, in violation of the Eighth Amendment. (Third Report at 38-39, adopted by the court on December 15, 1988). The Monitor based his determination in part on Toussaint v. McCarthy, 597 F. Supp. 1388 (N.D.Cal. 1984), aff'd as to remedy, 801 F.2d 1080 (9th Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 481 U.S. 1069 (1987), a case brought by administrative segregation inmates housed in the same cell blocks in San Quentin. In Toussaint, Judge Weigel ordered the prison to take various measures to reduce the noise levels experienced by those plaintiffs. Mr. Robert Riggs has served as Monitor in both cases. In this case, the Monitor requested that the parties show cause why this consent decree should not be modified to adopt the relief ordered in Toussaint : (1) to prohibit inmates from using loudspeakers; (2) to install sound-absorbing wall coverings; and (3) to provide sound-exclusion devices, such as ear plugs, to the inmates. (Decree Provision XIII, Third Report at 40). However, the Monitor noted that the decree in this case "will not necessarily require any change in the present operation of the East Block," because defendants had undertaken steps to comply with the Toussaint order to the same effect. (Third Report at 40 n.14).

 In his Fourth Report, adopted by Judge Weigel on October 5, 1989, the Monitor recommended that the Toussaint noise remedies be added to this consent decree. The Monitor referred to the provisions of the Toussaint injunction, and recommended that the same protections should be afforded condemned prisoners in the same units. (Fourth Report at 56-57). "The fact that the anti-noise provisions of the Toussaint Judgment of Permanent Injunction have been effective favors the equity of including a similar provision in the Consent Decree herein." Id. In 1991 the Monitor found in Toussaint that "conditions of noise in East Block currently satisfy minimum constitutional standards." (Toussaint Sixth Report at 8).

 In his Memorandum Regarding the PLRA in August 1996, the Monitor recommended that the noise remedy not be terminated because the court granted that relief "on the basis of an express or implied finding that the relief was 'narrowly drawn, extends no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right, and is the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right."' (Memorandum re PLRA at 2; notes omitted). The Monitor in part cited Toussaint, which had used the following standard to order the relief in that proceeding: "The remedial order must address only the specific conditions that violate the Constitution, and only to the extent required to correct the specific violations. A remedy may go beyond this, however, when there is a record of past constitutional violations and violations of past court orders." Toussaint 597 F. Supp. at 1419 and n.51.

 Defendants first argue that the Monitor's statement about Judge Weigel having made the required findings is insufficient in this proceeding, and cannot substitute for the findings themselves ; therefore, this court should now look at the record itself to see whether Judge Weigel did indeed make the required findings. This court agrees. In reviewing the Monitor's recommendations and Judge Weigel's order, this court must engage in a de novo review of Judge Weigel's actual findings.

 Second, defendants argue that at the time the Monitor recommended adoption of the noise remedy in his Fourth Report, he acknowledged that the noise conditions had already been resolved as the result of the Toussaint injunction. Thus at the time the noise remedy was adopted in this consent decree it was arguably not "necessary" to address an ...


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