Camille Bennett, counsel at SNR Denton, began working on pro bono prisoner civil rights cases after growing concerned over treatment of inmates in Illinois prisons. “It’s sort of as simple as, the punishment is being incarcerated,” she said. “There shouldn’t be punishment on top of punishment. That seems un-American to me.”
Photos by Marina Makropoulos.
Bennett got involved in one case in summer 2007, when Gloria Johnson-Ester asked SNR Denton Senior Partner Harold Hirshman to help her son, Montell Johnson, a convicted murderer at Dixon Correctional Center. Johnson-Ester told them Johnson developed advanced multiple sclerosis, but was not receiving proper medical care, Bennett said. The firm filed suit against officials at the prison and the Illinois Department of Corrections, and in October 2007, Johnson went to the hospital. “We found out that our worst fears were true,” Bennett said. “He had bedsores that had become infected and his weight was down to 76 pounds.”
The firm filed a series of motions, and as a result of court involvement, Johnson went to the University of Illinois Medical Center and then to Kindred Hospital Chicago North for 10 months of rehabilitation. He later moved to Sheridan Correctional Center with a special protocol for care.
During that time, Bennett said the SNR Denton team filed a petition for medical clemency on Johnson’s behalf. Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich granted that petition as one of his last acts in office. But as the team arranged for Johnson to be released, they learned he had also been convicted in California — and the state wanted him back. “California lent him to Illinois under executive agreement, signed by the governors of both states, to be tried in Illinois,” Bennett said. “The agreement provided that if Illinois released him, California could take him back. We couldn’t believe this, because their prison medical care is under federal receivership and federal judges in California ordered release of 40,000 prisoners to relieve prison overcrowding.”
SNR Denton filed suit in California, but the judge dismissed it for lack of standing. The firm filed an appeal in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and after mediation, Johnson was released on parole to his mother’s care in August.
Bennett said Johnson, now 46, is completely incapacitated. “We put people in prison for a very long time … creating enormous stresses on the system to provide high levels of medical care that they are not equipped to provide,” she said. “This rather sad case is an example of that.”