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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

State Can’t Duck Services for Disabled Prisoners

(CN) - California cannot pass its responsibility to assist certain disabled prisoners with basic necessities onto its counties, the 9th Circuit ruled.

The state had claimed that recent changes to its penal code allowed it ignore the rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of disabled prisoners who are either awaiting parole revocation hearings in county jails or serving time after a revocation.

The move is the latest in a nearly 20-year dispute between a class of blind and otherwise disabled state prisoners and parolees, who often must rely on the kindness of fellow inmates for help going to the bathroom, taking a shower and getting a meal. The class has claimed over the years that the state's jails lack the "basic necessities of life for disabled prisoners and parolees, such as wheelchairs, sign language interpreters, accessible beds and toilets, and tapping canes for the blind."

California has been under a permanent injunction to change this since 1996, but has "resisted complying with their federal obligations at every turn," according to the 9th Circuit.

The latest resistance comes in the form of a change to California Penal Code § 3056, which states that "When housed in county facilities, parolees shall be under the sole legal custody and jurisdiction of local county facilities." The state had argued that this change relieved it of responsibility for any disabled prisoners among those parolees, and thereafter refused to go forward with a court-ordered plan to keep track of monitor disabled inmates in county jails

A unanimous three-judge panel of the federal appeals court disagreed with the state's reading on Friday and found that "defendants have a continuing obligation to assist in alleviating the conditions that result in ADA and Rehabilitation Act violations in county jails."

"Although § 3056 alters the balance of control between the state and its counties somewhat while parolees covered by § 3056 are incarcerated, both the instigation of parole revocation and the service of any jail time for revocations enforce state-imposed requirements and serve essentially state purposes," wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt for the panel. "Therefore, the state is not absolved by § 3056 of all its responsibility for ADA obligations as to parolees placed in county jails to enforce their state-imposed sentences, including their parole conditions."

Reinhardt added that "the state cannot house persons for whom it is responsible in jails where the state reasonably expects indignities and violations of federal law will continue to occur, turn care over to county custodians, and then disown all responsibility for their welfare."

A California Department of Corrections spokesperson declined to comment on Monday, saying the department was "reviewing the court's ruling and considering the options."

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