A Victory Against the California Prison System

Jeff Wozniak

I work with Dennis Cunningham whenever I have the opportunity: the Fruitvale Gang Injunction defense; suing OPD for killing a schizophrenic man; and most recently defending Dennis’ free spirited dog, Gus’ right to roam off-leash. Over the years, he has not only become a friend, but also a valued mentor who has helped me through my early years of lawyering. He taught me to “catch flies with honey” and showed me that ego gets you nowhere.

The Soledad case, Cleveland v. Curry, has lingered in Federal court for years. Five prisoners: Ivan Cleveland, Demetrius Huff, Robert Morris, Desmond Jones and Kenneth Trask, had their genitals squeezed by a correctional officer during ‘clothed body searches’ allegedly done to stop the flow of contraband. Although you lose a lot of freedoms when you go to prison, you don’t lose the right to be free from sexual harassment and intimidation. These guys had been in prison for years and searched thousands of times. They knew what a normal search was like. These searches were different.

They sued the officer, Erwin Abanico, for the offensive searches, and the warden, Benjamin Curry, for failing to intervene after numerous complaints were on his desk. Our trial plan was straightforward: the five guys would testify and we would attack Abanico and Curry as much as possible. It was going to come down to whether the jury believed our story.

Cleveland testified first. He revealed how he suffered nightmares and a tremendous loss of dignity following abusive searches by Abanico in 2007. Frustrated, he started asking around and eventually found over 100 guys who had had similar experiences with Abanico and who signed a petition. A complaint with the petition was given to the prison authorities. The complaint was on the warden’s desk, but Abanico stayed in his position and nothing substantive happened.

Trask fought back after he was violated. He filed complaints and called out Abanico for other inappropriate actions—he went to solitary confinement for eight months. Morris and Jones didn’t end up in the hole, but they were violated and filed complaints. Huff was repeatedly searched and violated by Abanico. Each guy filed complaints—all were ignored.

While presenting our case the guys were nervous. They worried about how they testified and whether they got out their story. I told them to believe in themselves, each other and Dennis. What I saw when they testified was five men telling the truth. They weren’t angry or acting and they weren’t going to be released because of this trial. Yet, underlying everything we all knew the odds were against us and that definitely humbled us.

During Abanico’s testimony he denied any memory of any of the incidents and instead talked about his training in general. He now trains other officers on proper searches. The Attorney General also put on an expert on training. He confirmed for us that squeezing the genitals during a search was improper.

Dennis’ closing was emotional. We didn’t know what the jury would do at that point, but hearing someone passionately advocate and tell their story was something they had long waited for. It really hit me then what this was all about. It wasn’t about winning or losing, but about recovering some of the dignity stolen by Abanico and Curry.

They would win this trial, no matter what the jury decided. Telling their story was a victory and the jury listened intently—nodding their heads in recognition of what happened. After years of being ignored by CDCR they finally had a forum with people who would listen and who, most importantly, would act.

The case went to the jury on Thursday afternoon and they reached a verdict in our favor by noon the next day. I watched Trask and Morris fight back tears as the verdict was read. They were in empowered shock, nervous about their future in prison but full of gratitude for the jurors and their recognition that each plaintiff had been wronged. The jury awarded $146,000 in damages. This included punitive damages of $5,000 per plaintiff against Abanico and $20,000 per plaintiff against Curry.

Today the guys are back in their cells at prisons across California. They still live in an oppressive penal system – but they have back their dignity, which Abanico stole so many years ago.

Jeff Wozniak, a native of San Francisco, is an aggressive criminal defense lawyer with a progressive and compassionate approach to practicing law. He believes that a client focused approach serves the client’s interest and assures the client is satisfied with the outcome of their case. Before starting his own firm, Jeff worked under notable criminal defense lawyers, including Stuart Hanlon. This experience allowed him to develop important relationships throughout the bay area criminal justice community. He has a strong belief in the importance of pro-bono work, and dedicates a substantial portion of his practice to such work.