Attorney who helped end indefinite solitary confinement is banned from California prisons
Suit filed by leaders of statewide prison hunger strike
August 16, 2019
Anne Butterfield Weills, an Oakland civil rights attorney whose work was key in ending the widespread use of solitary confinement in California prisons, has been banned for life from communicating with prisoners amid allegations she talked to incarcerated clients with contraband cell phones, court records show.
In a lawsuit filed in March, Weills alleged her ban was the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s way of retaliating against her for joining a 2009 federal lawsuit that succeeded in heavily restricting the use of segregated housing units in state prisons. The March suit was filed not just by Weills but also by nine leaders of an early 2010s prison hunger strike that recruited thousands and brought national attention to the conditions of state prisons.
Solitary confinement has been a controversial topic in California for more than a decade. Prison officials say it is a necessary means to prevent dangerous inmates from harming others or directing traffic in the web of violent prison gangs throughout the state. Opponents call it a brutal, inhumane form of punishment and point to studies showing people who undergo it are at grave risk of psychological damage.
In court filings, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has responded that Weills was banned because she was suspected of having numerous conversations with inmates over their contraband cell phones, which is a misdemeanor. The agency also alleged she was once suspected of providing a prisoner with a cell phone, a much more serious offense. Her attorney denied that, calling it a “hideous” allegation and suggesting the department made it up.
The department “has failed to provide Weills with any evidence to establish that she has had numerous and extensive illegal cell phone conversations with inmate(s), jeopardizing the security of CDCR institutions,’ the suit says.”As a result, Weills has been denied due process and any opportunity to respond or dispute that evidence,” the suit adds, noting that the ban also denied Weills’ incarcerated clients their right to legal communication.
A department spokesman declined to comment because the lawsuit is pending and directed reporters to the agency’s court filings. A motion to dismiss, filed by the department last month, denies the ban was retaliatory and says Weills’ alleged conduct violated the state prison system’s rules as well as California law. It says Weills was informed of the appeals process when told of her ban.
“As discussed above, the Inmate-Plaintiffs do not have any constitutional right to counsel in a civil matter, and Ms. Weills certainly has no constitutional right to represent any inmate,” the motion to dismiss says.
Weills is known for her work on prisoner civil rights cases, as well as her activism. In 2014, she and other protesters sued Alameda County over poor conditions at the Santa Rita Jail, after they were arrested in Oakland during a protest demanding then-Attorney General Kamala Harris prosecute cops who kill people. The suit resulted in a $130,000 settlement.
In the early 2010s, Weills joined a legal effort to end the use of solitary confinement, the controversial practice of locking inmates alone for 23 to 47 hours straight, typically in windowless rooms, and cutting off contact with other people. The suit — known widely as the “Ashker Case” because of it's lead plaintiff, Todd Ashker — ended in a 2015 decision that drastically scaled back the use of indefinite segregated housing units and pledged other similar changes to the prison system.
“The fact that she is local counsel and was able to maintain trust and respect of as many inmates as were involved makes her an integral part of the litigation,” said Emilyrose Johns, one of Weills’ attorneys. “It also makes it that much more impactful that they banned her.”
The Ashker case was little-known when filed in 2009. But a series of prison hunger strikes, starting in 2011, changed that. They were organized by leaders of rival prison gangs in California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison who formed a truce and pledged to work together to end solitary confinement. By the hunger strike’s end, there were an estimated 30,000 participants.
Cell phones in prisons
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s July motion to dismiss says at one point, without elaboration, that Weills had been suspected of smuggling a cell phone into prison. The motion adds that the investigation concluded she talked to inmates over their cell phones, but doesn’t say whether any investigative conclusions were reached on the smuggling suspicion.
Johns called that allegation “absolutely untrue” and added it was ironic, “given there have been many investigations that demonstrate prison guards are a major source of cell phone smuggling in the prison.” She declined to comment on the allegations of cell phone conversations, though. Weills did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the suit’s nine other plaintiffs besides Weills, Daniel “Danny” Troxell, is currently fighting a racketeering case filed by the Eastern District of California U.S. Attorney’s office, which names Troxell as a leader of the California Aryan Brotherhood and accuses him and others of using contraband cell phones to arrange murders and sell drugs.
Troxell and another alleged Aryan Brotherhood commissioner, Ronald Dean Yandell, allegedly possessed contraband phones while incarcerated at Sacramento State Prison, also known as New Folsom. The charging records allege Yandell — another leader in the prison hunger strikes — set up several murders, arranged heroin deals, and remained in touch with AB and Mexican Mafia members throughout California.
At the time of the alleged crimes, Yandell and Troxell had both been recently transferred from a solitary housing unit in Pelican Bay to a New Folsom yard that gave them more freedom, in light of the Ashker decision.
In charging records — written by the Drug Enforcement Administration and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — authorities blame the alleged murder plots on restrictions to solitary confinement, referring to the hunger strike as the “purported hunger strike,” and describing it more as an extreme diet. They allege major hunger strike participants hid food in their cells and would eat a bean burrito a day when no one was watching.
Months before he was indicted on the charges, Yandell wrote an editorial alleging he was being retaliated against by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for his work on the hunger strike and that he intended to sue. He wrote that they’d recently attempted to transfer him back to Pelican Bay, a move he interpreted as an assassination attempt. He admitted to possessing contraband phones, but said he did so to film and release a documentary about conditions inside prison.