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Federal Court Rejects California’s Attempt to Terminate Clark Remedial Plan, Grants $2.3 Million in Attorney’s Fees

by Mike Brodheim

On August 26, 2010, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California issued proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law after conducting a hearing to determine whether it was appropriate to terminate the prospective relief provisions of the Clark Remedial Plan (CRP). The CRP is a set of policies and procedures detailed in a 2001 settlement agreement designed to ensure that California prisoners with developmental disabilities are protected from serious injury and discrimination due to their disabilities. [See: PLN, Sept. 1998, p.12].

The State of California, the Governor and various prison officials – the defendants in Clark v. California – filed a motion in 2010, pursuant to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3626(b), seeking to terminate the CRP. While the defendants had agreed in 2001 that “they [had] violated the federal rights of plaintiffs [developmentally disabled prisoners] in a manner sufficient to warrant the relief contained” in the CRP, in seeking to terminate the CRP they argued that such violations no longer occurred.

The district court largely rejected that argument. To the contrary, the court found further relief was necessary because the defendants had demonstrated they were unable to remedy their violations of plaintiffs’ rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court could not conclude, however, that the defendants were deliberately indifferent to the suffering caused by the “constitutionally questionable conditions of confinement” to which developmentally disabled prisoners were subjected, and therefore declined to find that continued prospective relief was also justified under the Eighth Amendment.

In a document spanning 112 pages, the district court made thorough and extensive findings based largely on a systemic review of the treatment of developmentally disabled prisoners in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), conducted by court expert Dr. Peter Leone.

Dr. Leone concluded that “[w]hile some dedicated CDCR staff were providing appropriate services and support to inmates with developmental disabilities, the system as a whole appeared indifferent to the needs of these inmates” and that “[t]he breadth and severity of problems ... suggest that with some exceptions, inmates with developmental disabilities do not receive the protections and supports” prescribed by the CRP.

The weight of the evidence adduced at the hearing, the court found, amply supported Dr. Leone’s conclusions. “In total the evidence demonstrates that mentally retarded prisoners and those with autism spectrum disorders are regularly verbally, physically, and sexually assaulted, exploited, and discriminated against in California prisons,” the court wrote.
“Illiterate prisoners are not given the help they need to understand or fill out important prison documents, leaving them with no way to use sick call slips or grievance forms, unless they can pay other prisoners or beg them for help. Developmentally disabled prisoners are punished for violating prison rules that they do not understand, and are punished at hearings which they cannot comprehend. These conditions violate these prisoners’ rights to due process and to be free of unlawful discrimination based on their disabilities.”

The court catalogued the defendants’ responsibilities under the CRP into seven categories: 1) identification of developmentally disabled prisoners in order to provide them with reasonable accommodations required under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, so they can avail themselves of prison services and participate in prison programs and activities; 2) reading and writing assistance; 3) meaningful assistance in disciplinary, administrative and classification proceedings; 4) meaningful access to grievance procedures; 5) assistance with self-care and daily living activities; 6) protection from abuse; and 7) adequate notice of parole conditions.

The district court noted that the CDCR had identified 1,348 prisoners, or 0.8% of the total prisoner population, as qualifying for placement in its Developmental Disability Program (DDP); that CDCR classified DDP prisoners as DD1, DD2 or DD3 depending on their level of support needs, with DD1 prisoners being mildly impaired and DD3 prisoners having a “severe” impairment requiring regular, intensive assistance to complete self-care and daily living tasks; that the CDCR aimed to “cluster” such prisoners in designated facilities to more effectively address their needs; that mental illness is not a developmental disability but could co-occur with it; that only a small percentage of people with developmental disabilities have identifying physical characteristics; that many developmentally disabled people work hard to mask their disabilities, making it appear that they have skills in areas in which they actually require help; that people with developmental disabilities have inconsistent and uneven skill development, being highly functional in some areas yet having significant functional impairments in other areas; and that many have poor self-care skills while others are naive with respect to prison culture, making them vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by other prisoners.

The court found that the prevalence rate for developmental disabilities among prisoners was at least 2-4%; thus, the defendants were failing to identify, conservatively, at least half of those prisoners who would qualify for protection and accommodation under the CRP. The court noted, disturbingly, that the defendants systematically failed to provide those developmentally disabled prisoners they do identify with assistance in reading and writing, access to medical care, access to canteen, access to the grievance system, assistance with self-care, and effective communication (e.g. at disciplinary hearings). It found, moreover, that the defendants failed to protect developmentally disabled prisoners from abuse initiated by other prisoners and, more egregiously, by staff.

The district court’s proposed Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law were adopted in an order entered September 16, 2010.

On December 29, 2010, the court granted the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the Prison Law Office, $2.3 million in fees and costs for work performed in connection with California’s motion to terminate the CRP. See: Clark v. California, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 3:96-cv-01486-CRB.

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Related legal case

Clark v. California