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Ninth Circuit: Orange County Jail PLRA Injunction May Not be Terminated as to Ongoing Violations

Ninth Circuit: Orange County Jail PLRA Injunction May Not be Terminated as to Ongoing Violations

The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has held that evidence of ongoing American with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations and inadequate access to exercise and religious services precluded Orange County, California jails from obtaining termination of injunctions under the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

Following earlier rulings in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Pierce v. County of Orange, Case No. CV-01-00981-GLT and Stewart v. Gates, Case No. CV-75-03075-GLT, the district court had ordered fourteen findings of relief from conditions of confinement at Orange County jails.

The Stewart orders required receipt of reading materials by mail (newspapers, magazines and paperback books), as well as mattresses and beds, access to law books, a population cap, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, blankets, telephone access, inter-jail communication with “jailhouse lawyers,” and at least 15 minutes to eat a meal.

As to Administrative Segregation (“Ad Seg”) prisoners, the court ordered access to religious services, a day room, exercise and visitors. At issue was the County’s request to terminate those orders pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 3626 on grounds that the jail was in compliance.

The Pierce court found that because all of the Stewart orders had been or were in the process of being complied with (i.e., the County was “moving toward” compliance), no further court oversight was necessary and the motion to terminate the injunctions would be granted. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit consolidated the Pierce and Stewart orders and held that pursuant to § 3626(b)(3), ongoing ADA violations and inadequate access to exercise and religious services for Ad Seg prisoners required ongoing court oversight.

The ADA violations centered on structural barriers for disabled detainees, particularly mobility-impaired and dexterity-impaired prisoners. A survey of the areas used for housing such prisoners revealed inadequate toilets, sinks, showers, hot water dispensers, telephones and water fountains, notwithstanding that jail officials claimed they were adequate. Upon questioning, jail compliance supervisor Ron Bihner conceded that many areas were not wheelchair accessible, among other deficiencies. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit found the district court had erred in granting termination of those provisions of the Stewart injunctions.

In reviewing Ad Seg prisoners’ access to exercise and religious services, the appellate court found such prisoners received only 90 minutes of exercise per week, less than the two hours per week required under Stewart. It further found this was based upon punitive intent and violated constitutional standards. As to religious services, access was completely denied. When prisoner Fermin Valenzuela complained, he was told by jail staff that “prisoners in Ad Seg don’t have it coming.” Deputy Brian Nissen testified that he had “never seen one of our Ad Seg inmates” in the chapel. Other jail employees confirmed this total denial of access to religious services.

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s termination of the injunctions issued in Stewart and remanded the case for reconsideration consistent with legitimate jail security needs. See: Pierce v. County of Orange, 526 F.3d 1190 (9th Cir. 2008), cert. denied.

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Related legal case

Pierce v. County of Orange