The Marshall Project

The Catalyst

His legacy is in jeopardy.

As the judge climbed the watchtower stairs in Pelican Bay prison, he heard muffled gunshots below. When he reached the top, he looked into the prison yard and saw bodies lying in the dirt. One was his law clerk, spreadeagled on the ground in his suit, alongside dozens of inmates. Guards stood over them, guns aimed.

“My clerk was thinking he’s gonna die and this is his last day on earth,” Judge Thelton Henderson recalled.

What appeared to be the taming of a riot was actually an audacious performance, staged by the guards to impress upon the judge that prison was a dangerous place, best left alone by meddling outsiders.

That prison pageant in September 1993 was a tacit acknowledgement of the power one extraordinary judge held over California’s prison system. During his 37 years on the bench, Henderson did more than anyone to transform California’s notoriously overcrowded prisons into a great experiment in second chances.

Now, newly retired and stricken by an autoimmune disease, the judge is watching the first serious backlash to his legacy. A campaign led by law enforcement organizations is gathering support for a measure on the November ballot that would roll back some of California’s reforms — a transformation Henderson believes is still unfinished.

“I think it’s awful,” Henderson said. “It’s a regressive move. It’s a step backward if it happens.”

Henderson, 84, became a lawyer during the civil rights era, and that moral framework and activist energy guided his work. When he joined the federal bench, he presided over a series of prison cases that

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