9th Circuit backs California prison reforms

Citing a “staff culture aimed at targeting inmates with disabilities” in California prisons, a federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the legality of a package of measures aimed at improving the behavior of correctional officers.

The reforms, first ordered by a federal district court judge in 2020 in response to complaints from prisoners in a longstanding lawsuit against the state, include a requirement that officers at six state prisons wear cameras video and that the number of fixed cameras in prisons be increased. They also demand that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation add more supervisors to prison staff and improve processes for investigating, tracking and disciplining officers who abuse prisoners.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the lower court’s orders, finding the changes ordered were necessary in light of ongoing abuses against prisoners with disabilities and of the state’s “previous failures to improve its liability systems in the absence of specific court-ordered instructions.

The ruling is the latest twist in a 1994 class action lawsuit brought by prisoners with physical and mental disabilities who alleged that abuse they suffered because of their disability violated the US Federal Persons with Disabilities Act.

The panel’s findings were also another acknowledgment that long-standing prisoner grievances remain unresolved, in part because the state agency has not done enough to stop the abuse.

“In its two orders, the district court found not only the continuing violations of the rights of the members of the group in the prisons, but also a common source of these violations: the absence of sufficient accountability measures to remedy the misconduct by officers, which fostered a staff culture of targeting inmates with disabilities,” Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland wrote for the appeals court. “The record amply supports both findings.”

Friedland, an Obama appointee, was joined in his decision by Senior Circuit Judge Susan Graber, who was appointed by former President Clinton, and Circuit Judge Eric Miller, a Trump appointee.

Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokeswoman, said the department was still reviewing the court’s decision, but said many of the reforms prescribed were already in place.

The department expanded the use of surveillance and body-worn cameras “in all state prisons” and increased staff training, she said. In January 2022, it also issued new regulations to investigate allegations of staff misconduct, she added.

“We are committed to ensuring accountability and results-oriented changes to address the issues raised by the district court,” Waters said.

Prisoner advocates said the changes were badly needed to ensure that complaints from incarcerated people with disabilities – which have been ignored for decades – are addressed.

Gay Grunfeld, one of the prisoners’ lawyers, agreed that many of the reforms upheld by the appeals court are already in place thanks to the lower court’s order, but said the higher court’s decision will help ensure that the improvements will not be undone. She said the camera requirements are particularly important because “without cameras, a code of silence reigns and the statements of those incarcerated are not believed”.

Grunfeld said his team filed about 175 prisoner statements in court describing the treatment they received at the hands of prison staff. Prisoners have a range of disabilities, including speech, hearing and mobility problems, kidney problems, learning disabilities and mental illnesses.

A prisoner with reduced mobility asked for help carrying a heavy package, and an officer refused. When the prisoner threatened to press charges, the officer pepper-sprayed him, hit him with the spray can, and then kicked him, Grunfeld said.

When another prisoner who uses a cane asked to be handcuffed in front of his body instead of behind him, an officer tackled him to the ground instead, Grunfeld said. Other prisoners with mental illness who sought help after feeling suicidal were simply ignored, Grunfeld said.

“We have many, many of these very disturbing examples,” she said. “It runs the gamut.”

The ruling applies to six state prisons: the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego; California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster; Kern Valley State Prison in Delano; California State Prison at Corcoran; California Drug Treatment Center and Corcoran State Prison; and the California Institution for Women of Chino.

Appeals panel upheld all changes U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ordered for San Diego facility, including use of body cameras, surveillance cameras, increased surveillance, training measures and tracking and restrictions on the use of pepper spray by officers.

For the other five facilities, the panel accepted Wilken’s call for cameras and prison staff training and monitoring. He overturned his order requiring increased surveillance and new rules for pepper spray in these prisons – concluding that there was insufficient evidence to justify the need for these measures.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already initiated changes to its pepper spray policy and added sergeants to shifts to comply with the lower court order at all six facilities. Asked if the appeals court’s decision not to follow those mandates at five of the facilities would result in further changes, Waters said “any next steps” would be determined by the ongoing review by the Status of the Court of Appeal’s decision.

Brandon Richards, a spokesman for Governor Gavin Newsom, said the governor’s office is reviewing the decision and had no further comment Thursday.

Grunfeld said she hopes the state doesn’t backtrack on the reforms because they are all “essential for officer oversight.”

She said the appeals court ruling ‘couldn’t have come soon enough’ given the national attention to law enforcement abuses – including in the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the more recent death of Tire Nichols at the hands of Memphis police. .

“People inside jails and prisons are even more exposed to the kind of brutality that we have seen nationwide, and that people are starting to realize is so prevalent, especially against Blacks and Browns,” Grunfeld said.

The decision of the appeals court is not the end of the prisoners’ litigation.

The district court released several recovery plans for the state to follow in this case, and the prisoners’ attorneys and a court-appointed expert are monitoring the prisons to ensure they are complying with those plans, including watching body camera footage of alleged abuse by officers and determining whether the state is disciplining them properly, Grunfeld said.

Los Angeles Times

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