Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Ninth Circuit: Orange County Jail Violated Ad Seg Prisoners’ ADA, Religious and Exercise Rights

by John E. Dannenberg

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that restrictions on prisoners in administrative segregation (ad seg) at the jail in Orange County, California, related to exercise and group religious programs, violated their federal rights. The appellate court further held that inadequate physical facilities at the jail and reduced programs for disabled prisoners violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Fred Pierce and three other disabled ad seg prisoners at the Orange County jail had filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint in U.S. District Court (C.D. Cal.) against Orange County and then-sheriff Michael Carona. Following a six-day bench trial, the district court found the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate any constitutional injury under § 1983; the court further terminated a prior consent decree against the jail [See: Stewart v. Gates, 450 Fed.Supp. 583 (C.D. Cal. 1978)], pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b)(3).

The plaintiffs appealed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part. The Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s termination of consent decree provisions related to ad seg prisoners’ access to exercise and religious programs, because violations of those provisions were still ongoing. It also found that because bathrooms, showers and some common areas had physical barriers that prevented access by disabled prisoners, the County was in violation of the ADA. But the Ninth Circuit affirmed the termination of eleven Stewart provisions dealing with mailed reading materials, law book access, mattresses and beds, meals, population caps, telephone access and visitation, because no evidence was presented that showed ongoing violations in those areas.

The ruling focused on the district court’s termination of the 1978 Stewart order related to religious worship in ad seg. That order provided for weekly group services and individual visits to the chapel or meetings with a prisoner’s bona fide personal spiritual advisor.
However, two plaintiffs alleged that they were denied access to such religious activities solely due to their ad seg status. The Ninth Circuit found that the County’s bare assertion of “security concerns” was insufficient to extinguish all access to group religious programs for ad seg prisoners, and reversed the lower court.

As to regular exercise, the Ninth Circuit found that was a right guaranteed by the Eighth Amendment and could not be summarily dismissed under the County’s blanket “security” argument. Therefore, based upon their pleadings, the plaintiffs had established a violation of § 1983. The appellate court held that a minimum of two hours of exercise per week, as set forth in the Stewart consent decree, was required. Since this was not being provided, termination of that provision was erroneous.

Likewise, the Stewart provision for accommodation of disabled prisoners could not be terminated. The plaintiffs demonstrated repeated examples of substantial barriers to access in the jail that unfairly impeded mobility-impaired and dexterity-impaired prisoners. Those same prisoners were thereby denied access to rehabilitative programs enjoyed by non-disabled prisoners at the jail. At the very least, the existing facilities utterly failed the ADA’s requirement of having “readily accessible” features.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s termination of three of the Stewart provisions based upon evidence of continued violations. On remand, the district court was also ordered to consider two prisoners’ claims of mental and emotional harm related to the ongoing constitutional violations. See: Pierce v. County of Orange, 526 F.3d 1190 (9th Cir. 2008) (as amended), cert. denied.

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Pierce v. County of Orange