ITHACA, N.Y. -- Sarah Betsy Fuller died April 21 at Cayuga Medical Center following a long battle with breast cancer. She was 58. Fuller was the lead attorney in a federal case that established the right of Native Americans to practice their religion freely in New York state prisons. She also was active in bringing to light the barbaric punishment in New York state of giving some prisoners only bread and water and in eliminating some humiliating strip search practices.
A longtime lawyer with Prisoners Legal Services of New York, Fuller was a faculty member at Cornell University Law School's Legal Aid Clinic starting in 1978 and taught courses in trial advocacy and other subjects for many years, most recently this past fall. She directed Syracuse University College of Law's public interest law clinic in the 1990s. She was a Fulbright scholar at the Technical University of El Salvador in 2000-01, where she developed a clinical legal program for the university's law school and organized the first Central American conference of clinical law teachers.
Earlier, she was involved in the Sanctuary Movement to provide safe havens in the United States for refugees from Guatemala and other Central American countries. In 1997, a book she co-authored with Harvey Fireside, Brown vs. Board of Education: Equal Schooling for All , was published in a Landmark Supreme Court Cases series for teenage readers, schools and libraries.
A resident of Brooktondale, N.Y., at the time of her death, Fuller grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. She attended Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., earned her A.B. degree at Cornell in 1968, a master's in sociology at the University of Wisconsin in 1971 and a law degree at Stanford University in 1974. She worked in the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., from 1974 to 1977, enforcing the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Following that, she was a staff attorney in D.N.A. People's Legal Services, a small office in Tuba City, Ariz., providing legal services to Navajo and Hopi Indians.
"A lot of people have beliefs. Betsy was one of those rare people who lived her beliefs," said Glenn Galbreath, a senior lecturer at Cornell Law School who co-taught courses with Fuller and worked with her in the school's Legal Aid Clinic.
After New York State Gov. George Pataki issued a proclamation in the mid-1990s honoring the contributions of Native Americans, Fuller wrote to him and the state's commissioner of the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) suggesting that a fitting tribute would be to let Native Americans practice their religion in prison. "Getting no reply, she sued," in the Hughes v. Goord case, said Tom Terrizzi, executive director of Ithaca-based Prisoners Legal Services, where Fuller worked. "In a rare response, the state came forward and did not fight the lawsuit," said Terrizzi. Negotiations over two years resulted in a comprehensive agreement to permit Native American inmates to conduct ceremonies, possess medicine bags and other religious items and make daily prayers in the traditional way. It also resulted in the DOCS hiring a prominent Native American chaplain to ensure the observances continued and to assist in developing programs at various prisons. Fuller was honored by the Onondaga Nation for her work.
The lead plaintiff in the case, Kirk Hughes of Syracuse, N.Y., who attended funeral services for Fuller April 24 at Temple Beth-El in Ithaca, related how his vocal demand to be able to practice his Native American religion landed him in isolation in state prison in Oneida. Fuller, who interviewed him there, told the warden, who wanted to end their meeting early, that she "had a case and was ready to go to court right now," said Hughes. "It was something to see. She was only 4 foot 10 but she stood her ground," he said, and the 15-minute interview became a three-hour one. She was later invited by the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations, to be part of a delegation giving testimony at a United Nations inquiry into the status of Native Americans. She told Hughes that she counted her U.N. appearance as "one of her most significant accomplishments," he said.
While at the Syracuse law clinic, Fuller was asked by a federal judge in Rochester, N.Y., to look at a pro se case from an inmate serving a long solitary confinement sentence who said he was being starved by the DOCS. "He was 145 pounds when he went in and at times dropped down to 114 pounds after being put on a diet of bread, water and some limp cabbage leaves," noted Terrizzi. "Betsy's investigation found that what had started as a limited attempt to control the behavior of mostly mentally ill inmates in solitary confinement had blown into a major human rights violation," said Terrizzi, who pledged that Prisoners Legal Services would work to end the practice she uncovered. "She lit a fire under us," he said. The day after her death, a former student of Fuller's, now a civil rights attorney, argued a case on the issue in federal court in Syracuse.
Fuller also was the lead attorney for monitoring in Hurley v. Coughlin, which successfully challenged DOCS practice and procedure of conducting strip frisks. The case, which went on over 20 years, brought several contempt motions, including one by Fuller challenging a practice at Albion state prison in which women prisoners were videotaped by guards while they were made to strip to be searched, said Terrizzi. "She was tenacious and persistent, which is what you need to make change happen," he said. Her efforts stopped the practice and got compensation for the women, leading to major reform in all 70 of the state system's prisons, he said. Even Fuller's adversaries thought highly of her, said Terrizzi. When informed of her death, the DOCS chief counsel told Terrizzi that Fuller was respected by everyone there, from the commissioner to local wardens, who admired her abilities as an advocate and, Terrizzi said, "felt terrible at the loss." The chief counsel acknowledged that through Fuller's tenacity, major changes have taken place in the way prisoners are treated in New York, said Terrizzi.
Jane Marie Law, the H. Stanley Krusen Professor of World Religions at Cornell and a friend of Fuller's who spoke at the funeral, said Fuller had told her she believed that a society is judged not by its artistic or scientific contributions but "by how it treats its prisoners."
Fuller is survived by her husband, Ronald Fuller, three children, Jonah, Cecily and Gabriel Fuller, and one grandchild, Abigail, all of Ithaca.