OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Finding persistent, targeted abuse of disabled inmates in California’s prison system, a federal judge on Thursday ordered prison officials to install surveillance cameras and require guards to wear body cameras at five state prisons.
Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken also ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to develop a policy to monitor and control how much pepper spray is used on disabled inmates and an electronic system to track incidents of misconduct.
The ruling will apply to California State Prison in Los Angeles County, California State Penitentiary Corcoran, Kern Valley State Prison, Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, California Institute for Women, Salinas Valley State Prison and California Correctional Institution, a supermax prison in Tehachapi. Wilken already ordered remedial measures at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego last September.
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.
She found that despite her myriad orders over the years, correctional officers are still targeting disabled inmates for abuse and that CDCR’s current system for investigating staff misconduct cannot be relied upon to hold wardens and staff accountable.
“[T]he court has found that staff failed on numerous occasions to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of disabled inmates,” Wilken wrote in a 71-page ruling issued late Thursday.
Notable incidents include refusing to help a disabled inmate shower, denying a deaf inmate access to a telecommunication device, and causing an inmate to miss his doctor’s appointment by not providing a vehicle with a wheelchair lift.
In declarations to the court, inmates said prison guards tipped them out of wheelchairs, punched and kicked them in the head and used pepper spray on inmates with mental illness.
One inmate with depression and anxiety said he was pepper sprayed when he asked to see his mental health clinician because he had just learned his father had cancer.
Another inmate with schizoaffective disorder was left alone in his cell for hours after reported that he was suicidal. His declaration said he tried to hang himself, and “instead of providing him with mental health care, an officer pepper sprayed him in the face.”
Wilken said she found these inmates credible, noting that prison officials did not offer any evidence to dispute their claims.
“The descriptions in these declarations of the behavior of staff toward disabled inmates are remarkably consistent,” she wrote. “Further, the declarants appear to lack any incentive to fabricate the incidents they describe with such great detail.”
In an email, CDCR spokesperson Dana Simas said the prison system is working on improvements.
"We are evaluating the judge’s order at this time, but we take the safety and security of the incarcerated population very seriously, and vigorously work to protect those with disabilities," Simas said. "CDCR has taken steps to improve conditions for people in our care to accommodate for both physical and mental disabilities, including holding staff accountable for behavior that goes against the department’s values.”
Wilken's ruling comes as state lawmakers scolded prison officials at a budget hearing for misspending $9.8 million on a new staff unit for investigating misconduct complaints.
Wilken also found the unit to be “deficient and ineffective” at handling ADA complaints, resulting in “a staff culture that condones abuse and retaliation against disabled inmates.”
In a separate order, Wilken said the five prisons should come up with a remedial plan to ensure inmates civil rights are protected.
Gay Grunfeld, an attorney representing dozens of disabled inmates, said in a phone interview late Thursday that CDCR needs a system to track incidents of abuse and hold repeat offenders accountable.
“Until they get that system, none of the remedies will work. Once we get that, all the other pieces will fall into place,” she said. “These officers need to be held accountable in a fair system that fully investigates all allegations. If found true, then discipline should be meted out quickly and fairly so that we can weed out the people who are perpetuating these kinds of abuses and retaliation and we can get on to a system that actually rehabilitates people and allows them to come out of prison and lead normal lives.”
Grunfeld and her team collected 179 declarations from prisoners alleging shocking abuses at the hands of correctional officers. Many more have suffered, but were too afraid to speak up.
“Right now we have a system where people are being sent to outside hospitals in the middle of a pandemic because someone has broken their nose or beat them with a baton," she said. "They need to use the least possible force. They need to de-escalate situations with mentally ill people. And instead what I’ve documented are really horrific incidents that are really hard to believe.”
Grunfeld said conditions have improved in the nearly 30 years since the lawsuit was first filed, and that she is confident that the prisons will agree with the changes Wilken proposed.
"Things are better than they were when the case was filed,” she said. “There are more cells for people with wheelchairs. There is more awareness of the needs of people with disabilities. But we need to bring this accountability piece to the forefront."
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