July 10, 2002

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Life during Wartime

We've always been at war

By A.C. Thompson

Remember the war on drugs? How 1990s, huh? But rest assured, even with most badge wearers now obsessed with catching terrorists, the war against mind-altering substances is still claiming lives.

Add Christine Solari, who died recently at the age of 64, to the list of drug war victims.

Los Angeles resident Solari was busted in summer 2001 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. She pleaded guilty, and Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald P. Kreber, apparently thinking Solari was a grandmotherly menace to society, gave her a three-year term in the Central California Women's Facility – a.k.a. the state pen – in Chowchilla.

There was just one problem. Suffering from emphysema, Solari underwent a lung transplant five years before her arrest and was in extremely fragile health before she ever went to the joint. At the time of her sentencing, medical personnel from UCLA's organ transplant unit were treating the elderly woman on a daily basis for organ rejection syndrome.

Going to prison, as one might imagine, did not improve Solari's condition.

"Her health radically deteriorated," recounts Solari's attorney, Cynthia Chandler, codirector of the Oakland human rights group Justice Now! "She suffered three bouts of pneumonia in the months of December and January alone. Her lungs were completely failing."

According to Chandler, an expert in medical-neglect and malpractice law, there was some sort of disconnect between high-level staff at Department of Corrections headquarters in Sacramento and prison officials in Chowchilla. Chandler says Sacramento instructed the prison to transport Solari to the UCLA lung specialists months before she died – but Solari never made it to the hospital. "The doctors, the chief medical officers, and the other officers who were treating her at the prison did not transport her to UCLA," the lawyer says.

Phone logs obtained by the Bay Guardian back up Chandler's story.

Meanwhile, Solari just got sicker and sicker. The skin on her arms and legs fell off in strips. Last week the prison sent Solari to Madera Community Hospital, a nearby facility that has no lung transplant team. Chandler visited her client at the hospital. "She was clearly on her deathbed. She was crying and begging for us to do something to get her down to UCLA. She kept saying that she was going to die if she wasn't transported there."

And on July 2 she did die – the medical reasons are unclear at this time – apparently without ever seeing a lung specialist. Chandler plans to file a wrongful-death suit on behalf of Solari's stepchildren.

Corrections spokesperson Margot Boch can't say much about Solari's case ("We haven't seen the autopsy yet"), but on the broader issue of health care behind bars, she says, "We employ competent, licensed, board-certified physicians. We have a system just like an HMO. And we do our best in dealing with inmates who aren't in good health. Many of these prisoners weren't taking care of themselves before they came to us."

Allegations of medical mistreatment have dogged the Corrections Department for the past decade. Prisoners and their families have filed countless lawsuits – in mid June, Chandler won a $250,000 settlement in the case of a sick woman who died after apparently receiving the wrong drugs. State legislators have called hearings and appointed blue-ribbon commissions.

And little, it seems, has changed. The drug war – despite the best efforts of the public, i.e., Prop. 36 and its progeny – grinds on, with the blessing of both major parties.

Pack yer bags, Dubya

From the annals of windmill tilting: San Francisco lawyer Gary Coutin is suing in federal court to strip George W. Bush of the presidency. Coutin isn't basing his suit on the vote-count irregularities in Florida or the Supreme Court's decision. He's going after the Electoral College, charging the body's 538 members with unconstitutionally usurping the power of individual voters.

"George Bush is just another citizen of the United States, and he's pretending to be president," Coutin deadpans.

In the lawyer's estimation, the Electoral College is a "mysterious body" that denies citizens the equal protection under the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment – i.e., your vote doesn't necessarily count. It's a theme the pundits were working as the Florida disaster unfolded in the fall of 2000. So does the argument have legs, legally?

For some expert analysis, we turn here to guest legal affairs correspondent Paul Reidinger, a Bay Guardian culture editor who graduated from a prestigious law school before choosing to enter the highly remunerative field of food criticism.

Says Reidinger, "He's right that the Electoral College is offensive to some basic notion of democracy. But there is a difference, after all, between 'unconstitutional' and 'bad.' " Bottom line, according to our constitutional law guru: this suit isn't going anywhere.

The courts – sadly – seem to agree. Northern District Judge William Orrick quickly dismissed it last year, and so far the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals hasn't even granted Coutin a chance to argue his case, but the lawyer is still pressing for a hearing.

The lack of success hasn't done anything to deter Coutin. "I don't think anybody has brought a more consequential lawsuit," he says.

E-mail A.C. Thompson at ac_thompson@sfbg.com.