Disabled California Prisoners Say Mistreatment Persists Despite Court Orders

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Shocking abuses in California’s prison system persist despite decades of court orders meant to curb violations of disabled prisoners’ civil rights, lawyers for an inmate class told a federal judge Tuesday. 

Gay Grunfeld, an attorney representing dozens of disabled inmates, urged Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to order the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to install surveillance cameras and ensure correctional officers are properly trained and disciplined.

“They’re not safe,” Grunfeld said of her clients. “Basically nothing is going to happen to protect our class until there are further efforts toward reform — starting with cameras and a better discipline system, training and an early warning system.” 

Grunfeld said officers are not held accountable for terrorizing prisoners, particularly ones with disabilities. Declarations submitted to the court by inmates describe being tossed or dragged from their wheelchairs when they ask guards for help, being accused of faking their disabilities, and being beaten unconscious when they complain about mistreatment. 

At R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, an officer was reportedly not disciplined after being caught pushing an elderly inmate out of his wheelchair. The inmate was simply transferred elsewhere. “If there had not been witnesses there would have been no change in his environment,” Grunfeld said. “At his new prison, officers called him a rat for what he did at RJD.”

Grunfeld said the problem is rooted in a deficient internal affairs office, where misconduct investigations are “biased, incomplete and unprofessional,” if they are conducted at all. Out of 179 incidents her firm has investigated, she said only two people have been disciplined to date. 

“There’s a dysfunctional culture,” she said. “No one is investigated and no one is disciplined. The declarations tell us the harm is real — they can’t all possibly be lying.”

Wilken is overseeing long-standing litigation against California’s prisons for civil rights abuses stemming from a class action lawsuit brought by prisoners in 1994. 

In 1996, Wilken ordered the Department of Corrections to develop a “remedial plan” to fulfill its obligations to disabled prisoners under federal law, which the Ninth Circuit affirmed in 1997. Wilken has periodically updated her ruling through the years to ensure that the corrections department continues to comply.

In September of this year, she ordered R.J. Donovan to reform its complaint and disciplinary process and for its guards to wear body cameras when interacting with inmates after Grunfeld’s firm and the Prison Law Office documented excessive use of force at the facility, including guards punching and kicking disabled inmates and using pepper spray “where the undisputed evidence shows that the class members posed no threat to RJD staff that would warrant the use of such force.”

Class attorneys asked Wilken on Tuesday to extend her September order to several additional prisons, including Los Angeles County, California Correctional Institution, Kern Valley State Prison, California State Penitentiary Corcoran, California Institution for Women, Salinas Valley State Prison, and Substance Abuse and Treatment Facility.

“Most troublingly, just like at RJD, incarcerated people with disabilities at these other CDCR facilities are terrified of staff. As a result, they refrain from asking for accommodations and other help that they require for their disabilities and avoid interacting with staff,” their motion says. “The hostile environment leads people with mental illness to not report suicidality or need for treatment. And because they have seen what happens to people who complain, they refrain from filing grievances when they do not receive the accommodations or help that they need or staff otherwise mistreat them.”

Wisen asked Grunfeld whether her order should apply to all 35 prisons rather than the seven listed in the class’ motion. “What is it that makes that needed at these seven prisons but not other prisons?” she asked.

Grunfeld said the order probably should be extended statewide but the seven listed house the largest number of class members and report the highest use of force, including use of rubber bullets, batons and pepper spray.

State corrections officials are resisting the additional oversight as unnecessary. California Deputy Attorney General Anthony Tartaglio said it was flatly wrong. 

“Binding case law says the court cannot take evidence from seven prisons and then extrapolate and issue an injunction that applies to all 35 prisons,” he said, citing Lewis v. Casey, where the U.S. Supreme Court held that inmates must show evidence of widespread injury, not just several isolated incidents of civil rights violations.

“Even just at these seven prisons there’s not enough evidence,” Tartaglio said. “Even if we look at LAC, plaintiffs have 42 declarations there but there are currently 2,738 prisoners at LAC. So this number of declarations represents a small fraction of the inmate population — less than 2%.”

Grunfeld said Wilken should not rule based solely on the number of declarations from each prison.

“It’s not a question of counting declarations and how many people live in the prison at this particular moment,” she said. “The point is these are the people who are brave enough to do a declaration with plaintiffs’ counsel. There are many more who are afraid to speak up.”

Wilken took the arguments under submission. Though she appeared open to extending her order to the additional prisons, she seemed disinclined to apply it statewide, saying, “I’m not sure we have the type of record we could use to make a statewide plan.”

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