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Ninth Circuit urged to overturn surveillance orders at seven California prisons

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation claims a judge's expanded order for body cams across several prisons and jails far exceeded her jurisdiction.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Attorneys for California’s correctional department urged a Ninth Circuit panel on Wednesday to overturn a court order for stricter regulations at prisons accused of abusing disabled inmates, arguing a class action did not present enough evidence of abuse.

The state wants the panel to find that a federal judge erred issuing an order across seven prisons without enough evidence from inmates who say they face ongoing discrimination and abuse at the hands of prison staff — a case that goes back to 1994.

Gay Grunfeld, an attorney representing thousands of disabled inmates, has said prison guards 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. 

In 1996, then-U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken — overseeing the long-standing litigation for civil rights abuses — ordered the Department of Corrections (CDCR) to develop a “remedial plan” to fulfill its obligations to disabled prisoners under federal law, which the Ninth Circuit affirmed in 1997. 

In September 2021, now-Senior Judge Wilken ordered the R.J. Donovan facility in San Diego 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. The excessive force included 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.”

Wilken ordered prison officials to install surveillance cameras and require guards to wear body cameras at five state prisons, and 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. 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.

The Bill Clinton appointee extended her order to 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. State corrections officials call the additional oversight unnecessary. 

Grunfeld said her team collected 179 declarations from prisoners detailing shocking abuses at the hands of correctional officers. 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. Wilken said she found these inmates credible, noting that prison officials did not offer any evidence to dispute their claims.

California Deputy Attorney General Jaime Ganson told the three-judge panel Wednesday it should reverse Wilken's order, arguing the judge exceeded her jurisdiction by expanding the scope of the litigation across seven facilities. The state argues Wilken relied too heavily on “unfounded” anecdotal evidence from “a handful of inmates," and that the case is about accessibility and programming opportunities, not misconduct.

“The district court took these little tidbits of evidence without doing the significant statistical analysis and made these extrapolations class-wide that just can't be supported by the evidence,” Ganson said. “There have to be widespread violations to support widespread relief. There’s not enough evidence showing that it (abuse) was widespread.” 

However, the panel pointed out such misconduct does seem to present obstacles for accessibility, if it led to denying disabled inmates certain services.

U.S. Circuit Judge Susan Graber, a Clinton appointee, said the state has a different interpretation of some of the evidence, and that the intimidation of inmates — such as pepper spraying inmates who asked for aid — could have a chilling effect and explain why there isn't more evidence of widespread abuse. 

“Suppose that the existing number of complaints has been artificially suppressed from (our) ears. It could still be widespread, even if the statistics were dramatically different,” Graber said.

“There’s not enough of those statements to draw the conclusions that the district court is drawing,” Ganson argued. She told the panel there aren't enough complaints to support Wilken's conclusions.

But Grunfeld told the panel the evidence of abuse was rampant. “Wardens were failing to hold staff accountable and enforce discipline, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of staff violations,” Grunfeld said, adding Wilken found body cameras are not redundant even if fixed cameras are placed in every facility area the plaintiffs have access to, to help prevent more violations and exonerate prison staff in case of any false accusations of abuse. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland, a Barack Obama appointee, compared the situation to a house of cards and asked Grunfeld if there could be any issues with the meat of Wilken's order that could lead to more challenges.

Grunfeld said Wilken found sufficient evidence to issue an order to help enforce old orders from 2007 and 2012. She said the burden rests on the state to address how to oversee and deescalate situations with inmates and reduce “disability discrimination."

“None of the efforts at reforming were working,” she said. “The district court has been overseeing these cases for years, and prior less intrusive policies have failed.”

On rebuttal, Ganson said the plaintiffs have not shown sufficient proof that the remedies are needed. She argued the corrections department already made high level staffing changes, adjusted staff assignments to increase rotations and set higher expectations for behavior. 

Friedland asked if the state would agree to either five years of requiring the order's camera remedies, or to maintain these remedies indefinitely, if the panel decides to uphold Wilken's order. Ganson asked the panel to limit the remedy to five years. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Eric Miller, a Donald Trump appointee, rounded out the panel, which took the arguments under submission and did not indicate if any part of Wilken's order over the seven facilities will be rescinded. 

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