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

Stai leggendo un'anteprima, registrati per continuare a leggere.

Altro da The Marshall Project

The Marshall Project10 min letti
Twenty-five years ago, the media invented a phrase: “superpredator.” The time for reckoning is overdue.
The Marshall Project5 min lettiCrime & Violence
Where Coronavirus Is Surging—And Electronic Surveillance, Too
In Chicago and elsewhere, the number of people wearing an ankle monitor has jumped in recent months due to the pandemic.
The Marshall Project4 min letti
Coronavirus Has Sparked Another Epidemic in My Prison: Anti-Asian Racism
Sitting in my cell on a mandatory precautionary quarantine, I'm still finding it difficult to make sense of everything that's going on. In the beginning, “pandemic” was a word I had to translate for my cellie, a Vietnamese refugee who struggled with