Jailhouse Lawyer

Don Specter

Published in 2010 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Suzy Frisch on July 8, 2010


When it comes to convicted felons, some people want to lock ’em up and throw away the key. But not Don Specter. He’s spent his career advocating for the humane treatment of prisoners as executive director of the nonprofit Prison Law Office in Berkeley.

In January, Specter clinched a major victory when a federal three-judge panel ruled that California’s correctional system is unconstitutional and must reduce its population by as many as 40,000 inmates. The judges ruled that prisoners are deprived of their constitutional right to adequate medical and mental health care when penitentiaries hold more than double their designed capacity (158,000 people in spaces designed for 84,000).

Specter and his team provide free legal advocacy for inmates in the state’s 33 prisons. He feels driven to champion offenders’ grievances because, he says, they are among those in this country who have the fewest rights.

“They are people and they deserve to be treated humanely. Even though they are prisoners for committing a crime, that doesn’t mean that you don’t provide them with medical care and allow cruel and unusual conditions, like when mentally retarded prisoners are being raped and robbed by other inmates,” he says. “When I tell people about the terrible conditions, they can’t imagine it could be this bad—which is why we win our cases.”

Through the years, Specter and his 11 public interest lawyers have racked up many substantive victories, including drastically improving living conditions on death row and in juvenile correctional facilities. Specter is particularly proud of his firm’s work to stop guards from beating juvenile offenders and locking kids in their cells 23 hours a day for months. His efforts also prompted a drastic reduction in the youth prison population from 10,000 to about 1,500, and a philosophical shift from punishment to rehabilitation. He estimates that his office receives 100 to 200 letters a day from prisoners.

Specter grew up on the East Coast and started law school at University of Connecticut but did not like law school or living in Hartford. After visiting a friend in Berkeley, Specter decided to transfer to the University of San Francisco, where he got his J.D.

He always harbored an interest in criminal law but he wanted to spur change on the macro level. Right out of law school he started volunteering at the Prison Law Office.

“The issues are often matters of life and death, and the injustice is so clear to me and worth fighting for,” he says. “I work with a lot of private law firms that help us, and many of the lawyers have told me that the case they did was the most worthwhile thing they’ve done in their career, and I think, ‘I get a whole career out of doing this.’

“We’ve been responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements, and I don’t know how many lives we must have saved over the years,” he says. “When I started in 1980 the prison population was 20,000 and it’s about 165,000 now, so things are worse. But if we weren’t here, it would be much, much worse.”

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