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Safety Concerns of a Prisoner Rights Lawyer, Daily Journal, 2011

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Safety Concerns of a Prisoner Rights Lawyer
By Jane Kahn


s part of the small talk that happens during holiday gatherings
and at other events during the
year, people ask me what I do. My work
involves representing California prisoners with severe mental illness. I am frequently asked whether I feel safe going
inside of the prisons. Sometimes, I am
asked how I dress to meet with my clients. Images of Attica seem to hover
over the conversations. Since I am at a
party, I give the quick answer. I explain
that I feel safe because I am visiting
my clients and the prisons are wellguarded. If someone insists, I might tell
a story. But I keep it simple. It is not
Many of the attorneys and paralegals
in our office have traveled regularly to
see our clients housed in the 33 California prisons scattered around the state.
The attorneys also conduct monitoring
tours of the prisons. The risk of harm
to advocates entering California prisons
to see their clients is primarily the risk
of continued exposure to the horrific
conditions of confinement that our clients must endure every day. The severe
overcrowding in the California prisons,
which was declared a state of emergency by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in
2006, has created extreme conditions
that are degrading, dangerous, and inhumane. Touring prisons and observing
the conditions which our clients must
endure, while remaining incapable of
remedying these conditions, or rescuing our clients from their suffering, can
be painful and intolerable.
It is especially difficult for plaintiffs’
counsel if the particular shocking prison practice or condition is routine and
acceptable to prison officials and fully
defended by defense counsel. For example, the widespread use of cages
to hold prisoners waiting for admission

Inmates sit in crowded conditions at California Sate Prison.

Asssocaited Press

The severe overcrowding in the California prisons, which was declared a state of
emergency by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, has created extreme conditions that are degrading, dangerous, and inhumane.
to suicide watch units, a practice initiated system-wide due to overcrowding
and bed shortages, is often not even
noticed by local clinicians who have become inured to the practice. Similarly,
the observation of patients on suicide
watch sleeping naked on the floor is
jarring unless you are a psychiatrist or
psychologist working within the California prison system where this is now
standard practice. I recall a prison visit
where I observed suicidal prisoners
meeting with their treatment team in
the mental health crisis unit. One patient after another was brought into the
small room wearing nothing but a blanket wrapped around his naked body.
When the first patient, who was sitting within inches of me, kept his eyes
averted during the “interview,” he was
finally asked why he would not look up,

and he haltingly replied: “I am naked,
I’m embarrassed to sit here like this.”
No one responded, and when he left,
the next naked prisoner was brought
into the treatment session. Obviously,
any harm to advocates observing these
conditions pales in comparison to the
harm suffered by our clients as a result
of these practices and conditions.
There is a body of literature that discusses “secondary trauma,” which can
occur among disaster relief workers,
firefighters, and mental health professionals who provide assistance to
Jane Kahn is of counsel at
Rosen, Bien & Galvan LLP, a San
Francisco civil litigation firm that
is also class counsel in several
prison civil rights actions.

those who have experienced trauma.
Although “secondar y trauma” is accepted as a risk to those working in
these fields, advocates such as attorneys and paralegals can also experience secondar y trauma responses
and symptoms of burnout. (Andrew P.
Levin and Scott Greisberg, “Vicarious
Trauma in Attorneys,” 24 Pace L. Rev.
245 (2003), available at:
When the advocates in our office repeatedly tour the prisons and talk with
our clients about their lives inside, and
then observe the conditions of confinement (triple bunks in crowded gymnasiums where prisoners are jammed with
little personal space; cages in hallways
where prisoners waiting for a bed are
placed; or suicide watch cells where patients are forced to sleep naked on the
floor, in locked down housing units with
no programming), and then return to
work to read letters from other prisons
detailing the same or worse problems,
the impact can be overwhelming.

In our office, we have experimented
with various strategies for addressing
the stress that the prison tours and
prisoner mail has on the attorneys and
paralegals. We have assigned mentors
to new attorneys to check in with them
after a prison visit. We have encouraged advocates leaving a prison to call
a “buddy” after the visit to discuss anything that comes to mind in a version of
“downloading” images. We have held
several meetings where advocates can
talk about their feelings around the
prison tours. And finally, in the midst
of the preparation for the overcrowding
trial (we recently conducted extensive
prison inspections with expert mental
health witnesses as part of the discover y phase in the federal overcrowding
trial — Coleman/Plata v. Schwarzenegger, N.D. Cal./E.D. Cal.) when the
tours and visits were extensive, we
had a psychiatric expert provide training for the trial team on mental health
issues, on spotting suicidal ideation in
our clients during visits, and on coping
with prison tours. Most importantly, we

stress to all staff that entering California prisons is not to be taken lightly.
Simply by acknowledging the impact of
these tours and the prisoner mail helps
attorneys and paralegals know that
there is an open door if they need to
talk. Sometimes family and friends simply cannot or do not want to hear the
actual details of these prison visits or
mail, but colleagues involved in similar
work can provide significant support.
At the social events when I am asked
whether I feel safe in my work, the
simple answer is yes because correctional officers accompany me inside
the prison, and because the prisoners
know that I am their advocate. I rarely,
if ever, talk about what makes me feel
unsafe: the shocking images that remain with me from my many prison visits. No, then I would have to discuss
the real risk of this prison reform work,
and it would take all night.
Photos of California prison conditions introduced as evidence in the
overcrowding trial are available at

Reprinted with permission from the Daily Journal. ©2011Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved. Reprinted by Scoop ReprintSource 1-800-767-3263



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