Prisoners of Wars

From Gitmo to Orange County, Cindy Pánuco fights for inmate rights

Published in 2015 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2015

Six months after graduating from Loyola Law School, Cindy Pánuco found herself poring over documents in a high-security building near the Pentagon before flying to Guantanamo Bay to meet with an Afghan detainee named Obaidullah. She and her co-counsel petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus and eventually argued his case at a closed hearing. 

“We weren’t even able to challenge [or see] some of the evidence because it was so highly classified,” she says.

Ultimately they lost the hearing, and while they’ve filed appeals, Obaidullah is one of the more than 100 remaining prisoners at Guantanamo. “We are now getting ready to figure out if and when to file a new habeas petition on the grounds that the war in Afghanistan is ending,” says Pánuco. Her client was captured at age 19 and has been imprisoned for nearly 13 years. She remembers visiting Obaidullah in 2013 after he lost 42 pounds during a hunger strike; he was nearly unrecognizable. “The mood was one of desperation by the detainees,” she says, “sacrificing their bodies to let the world know that they’d rather die than continue to remain indefinitely.”

Obaidullah’s is one of several high-profile cases that Pánuco has taken on in her five years practicing civil rights and employment law. Early in her tenure at Hadsell Stormer & Renick, she joined colleagues in representing Michael Holguin, an inmate who was assaulted by sheriff deputies after complaining about being denied a shower at the Men’s Central Jail. His case, which eventually settled, became a principal part of a larger investigation into prison abuse against the LA County Sheriff’s office.

“Inmates were taken to corners where they could be beaten, and a doctor had been told to move an inmate to an area where the ACLU couldn’t find him,” Pánuco says. “The deputies were part of a gang—the ‘3000 Boys’ gang— right inside the prison.”

In another case, she represented inmates in a suit against the Orange County jails, alleging that the jails weren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “There weren’t grab bars for people who needed to get onto toilets, there weren’t seats in showers,” says Pánuco. “Inmates were rolling around on the floor in inhumane conditions.” Her team obtained an injunction in 2011 and the jails have since complied with ADA standards.

Pánuco’s parents arrived in the U.S. from Mexico separately in the ‘60s and ‘70s; Pánuco was 6 when her mother became a citizen. At the ceremony, she remembers turning to her father and asking why he wasn’t getting his certificate, too. “That takes a lot of money and we need to hire a lawyer to do that,” he told her. “And I thought, ’Wow, the power of the lawyer. They can make or change someone’s life.’”

Today Pánuco serves as president of the Mexican American Bar Association in LA and regularly travels with a team to Colima, Mexico to help establish a rule of law in the country.

Her father has yet to take the U.S. citizenship test, but one thing might change that. “He says that if I ever ran for office,” Pánuco says, “he’d take his citizenship test so he can vote for me.”

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