Fifty years ago, a young Justice Department civil rights lawyer, Thelton Henderson, offered to drive Martin Luther King to a safe residence amidst lynch-mob threats. For this service, he was reprimanded and removed from his position on the grounds that a government vehicle could not be used to protect King. Shaped by the fires of the early Sixties, Henderson went from being the first African-American civil rights attorney in the Justice Department to ultimately being named a federal judge under President Jimmy Carter.
This week Henderson was vindicated in a long, controversial struggle over conditions in California’s prison system. In 2005, Henderson ruled that overcrowding and lack of medical care amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment. His position subjected him to attack from the California’s powerful prison guards union, and the political leadership in Sacramento, including then-Attorney General Jerry Brown, an opponent of the death penalty who nonetheless defended in court a prison system where 112 inmates died of preventable causes in the past two years. In addition, there has been an inmate suicide rate twice the national average. As recently as this year, Gov.-elect Brown was complaining about those “intrusive” federal judges who “want us to spend more money,” though it was Brown himself who hired $1,100 Washington lawyer to fight the case.
Judge Henderson’s vindication by a conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court, sends a message that there may be increasing limits to America’s mass incarceration policies, including guarantees against cruel and unusual practices. The ruling is a huge victory as well for the Berkeley-based Prison Law Project, which brought the initial complaint and persevered through multiple hearings.