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California: Orange County Jail System Ordered to Remedy ADA Violations

by Mike Brodheim

Following remand from the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Pierce v. County of Orange, 525 F.3d 1190 (9th Cir. 2008) [PLN, Feb. 2009, p.34], U.S. District Court Judge Audrey B. Collins held on January 7, 2011 that mobility- and dexterity-impaired pretrial detainees in Orange County jails faced discrimination in violation of Title II of the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12131, et seq. Judge Collins ordered the county to create a plan to remedy those violations, which were found to be sufficiently widespread as to justify system-wide relief.

In 2001, Timothy Conn filed a class-action suit, along with other detainees, alleging that Orange County jail facilities did not provide reasonable accommodations to disabled prisoners and that, as a consequence, such prisoners were excluded from programs, activities and services available to non-disabled detainees.

Conn has severely clubbed hands, no mobility in his lower body and only limited use of his upper body. Classified as a paraplegic or incomplete quadriplegic, he is confined to a wheelchair. The district court rejected the county’s attempt to limit the class to prisoners with disabilities precisely matching Conn’s, as opposed to the more broadly defined class of detainees with either a “mobility” or “dexterity” impairment. On the other hand, the court declined the plaintiffs’ invitation to expand the class to include detainees with other impairments (such as loss of hearing or sight), as well as their suggestion that the class should include sentenced prisoners.

The district court made comprehensive findings of fact and conclusions of law with respect to 1) the existence, nature and scope of physical barriers at the jail; 2) unequal provision of programs, services and activities; and 3) adequacy of grievance procedures to deal with ADA complaints.

With respect to the latter, the court found that before 2009 the county provided inadequate notice to disabled detainees of their rights under the ADA and related grievance procedures. Subsequently, the county took steps to ameliorate those violations, posting notices in each housing area and assigning a newly-designated compliance officer to address ADA complaints. The district court found, however, that those measures fell short because 1) the notices were (in some cases, at least) posted too high; 2) the compliance officer did not receive requisite training regarding ADA guidelines; and 3) the county had not established an adequate system for maintaining and tracking ADA grievances.

In regard to physical barriers, the court found that the plaintiffs had met their burden both of establishing the presence of such barriers at each jail facility housing mobility- and dexterity-impaired detainees and of demonstrating that the expense of remedying those barriers was reasonable. As required by the ADA, the district court distinguished between “new” facilities (built after the ADA’s effective date of January 26, 1992), which, pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 35.151, must be “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities,” and older facilities, for which a more flexible standard applies.

In both cases the court considered the extent of the jail’s compliance with the ADA’s Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities (ADAAG), 28 C.F.R. Pt. 36, App. A, requiring stricter adherence to the guidelines in the case of “new” facilities.

The court determined that Module 0, the medical unit at Theo Lacy (a 3,100-bed Orange County jail), was a “new” facility subject to 28 C.F.R. § 35.151, whereas the Men’s Central Jail (MCJ), a large multi-story building housing around 1,500 men, and Musick, a minimum-security facility holding approximately 330 male and 100 female detainees, were both built before January 26, 1992 and hence were subject to the less stringent standard of 28 C.F.R. § 35.150.

The district court noted that the ADAAG requires disabled prisoners to be accommodated 1) in at least 2% of all cells; 2) in at least one cell in each specialized unit, such as administrative segregation; and 3) in at least 5% of areas for receiving and booking detainees.

The court made detained findings with respect to showers, toilets, sinks, phones, tables, classrooms, dayrooms and cells. It rejected as unreasonable any suggestion that disabled detainees could be transferred into and out of showers, or on and off toilets, by other detainees or even by jail medical staff. Instead, the court mandated physical modifications and compliance with ADAAG guidelines at MCJ, Theo Lacy’s Module 0, the Intake Release Center (where detainees are processed) and virtually every other facility in Orange County’s jail system.

With respect to programs, services and activities, the district court found that disabled detainees continued to be impermissibly “shunted” into facilities, such as the MCJ, where there was little opportunity to participate in the vocational and recreational programs made available to non-disabled detainees at other facilities, such as Musick.

The disparity in treatment was particularly egregious for disabled prisoners housed at Theo Lacy’s Module 0. The county could offer no justification for not allowing disabled detainees to use the Inmate Programming Building for classes and programs, or the “Green Sector” for recreation, even though those areas were readily accessible to Module 0 detainees.

The court found that, with scheduling as well as relatively minor structural changes, it would be possible to accommodate much, though not all, of the programming needs of disabled prisoners. Given the physical limitations of the MCJ and the Intake Release Center, however, the court determined it would likely also be necessary to require the county to arrange for transportation of disabled detainees to Musick and Theo Lacy, within reasonable parameters, in order to ensure roughly equivalent access to some programs and outdoor recreational activities. See: Pierce v. County of Orange, 761 F.Supp.2d 915 (C.D. Cal. 2011).

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Related legal case

Pierce v. County of Orange