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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Ninth Circuit trims scope of California prison reform order

A three-judge panel agreed there have been Americans with Disability Act violations at some California prisons, but found a federal judge overreached by ordering reforms at prisons without sufficient evidence of abuse.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Wading once again into a nearly 30-year-old case, a Ninth Circuit panel on Thursday sided with a federal judge who ordered more surveillance and disciplinary system reform at a prison with documented instances of abuse of inmates with disabilities. 

The class action filed in 1994 involves claims of shocking abuses within the state prison system, despite decades of court orders meant to curb violations of disabled prisoners’ civil rights. 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.

In 2020, attorney Gay Grunfeld, representing dozens of disabled inmates, urged Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to order the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to install surveillance cameras and ensure correctional officers are properly trained and disciplined.

In 2021, Wilken ordered San Diego’s R.J. Donovan facility to reform its complaint and disciplinary process and require guards to wear body cameras when interacting with inmates, after Grunfeld’s firm and the Prison Law Office documented excessive use of force.

Wilken also ordered surveillance cameras and body cameras at five other state prisons, with a policy to monitor and control how much pepper spray is used on disabled people and an electronic system to track incidents of misconduct. She found that correctional officers are still targeting disabled people for abuse and that the system for investigating staff misconduct cannot properly hold wardens and staff accountable.

But this September, attorneys for the correctional department urged the Ninth Circuit panel to overturn Wilken's order for stricter regulations at prisons accused of abusing disabled inmates, arguing the class did not present enough evidence of abuse. They argued Wilken's order involving six prisons was in error because there hadn't been enough evidence of abuse from inmates.

California Deputy Attorney General Jaime Ganson told the three-judge panel it should reverse Wilken's order, arguing the judge exceeded her jurisdiction by expanding the litigation using “unfounded” anecdotal evidence from “a handful of inmates.”

But Grunfeld said her team collected 179 declarations from prisoners detailing shocking abuses at the hands of correctional officers. Declarations to the court described prison guards tipping incarcerated people out of wheelchairs, punching and kicking them in the head, and using pepper spray on people with mental illness. 

In its ruling Thursday, the panel rejected the state’s contention that Wilken did not have authority to issue either of the orders addressing misconduct that was “categorically distinct” from original allegations. The judges found the new allegations were closely related to those that the state failed to accommodate class members’ disabilities, directly violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Writing for the panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland found one example Wilken relied on from the San Diego facility described an officer punching a person in the face after the inmate had requested that the officer communicate in writing to accommodate their hearing disability. Friedland said this incident reflected two denials of reasonable accommodation. 

“That the allegations raised in plaintiffs’ recent motions described violent denials of accommodations makes injunctive relief all the more appropriate,” the Barack Obama appointee wrote. “Similarly, retaliating against inmates who request accommodations or who report denials of accommodations deters inmates from pursuing accommodations in the first place. The result is that inmates do not receive the accommodations required by the ADA — exactly what the complaint alleged."

She added: “Neither plaintiffs nor the district court had to sit idly by while defendants violated class members’ rights, even if defendants were already making marginal improvements.”

On whether Wilken’s orders comported with the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1995, the panel upheld her conclusions that there were ongoing Disability Act violations at each prison as well as a lack of accountability measures to address officer misconduct fostering staff culture of targeting people with disabilities.

The panel also affirmed the provisions of each order that addresses prisons’ investigatory and disciplinary failures, like requiring additional surveillance cameras and staff training. It upheld Wilken’s order to reform the complaint process to better investigate and discipline offending staffers, and that investigatory and disciplinary reform measures fit the definition of injunctive relief being “narrowly drawn and no more intrusive than necessary.”

But beyond the San Diego facility, the panel found Wilken had relied on insufficient evidence and abused her discretion by ordering the state to reform pepper-spray policies and boost supervisory staff at the five other prisons. Friedland wrote that accusations of misconduct at the other came from inmates in a separate class action brought on behalf of “all state inmates with serious mental disorders.” She said Wilken did not dispute the state’s 100 declarations contesting some of the events described at those prisons. 

Friedland added there was “plenty of evidence” of mistreatment of prisoners at those facilities. The opinion noted that failures of the state’s investigatory and disciplinary systems were “well illustrated” by the plaintiffs’ experts, although evidence from the other five prisons was not as thoroughly corroborated as evidence from San Diego. 

“Witnessing retaliation against any disabled inmate — whether or not the inmate is a member of the Armstrong class — may accordingly deter class members from speaking up, contributing to the vicious cycle described above,” Friedland wrote for the panel, which included U.S. Circuit Judges Susan Graber, a Bill Clinton appointee, and Eric Miller, a Donald Trump appointee.

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Categories / Appeals, Civil Rights

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