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California: ADA Protections Again Extended to Disabled State Prisoners Held in County Jails

On January 13, 2012, sixteen months following remand from the Ninth Circuit in the case of Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken issued an order that again extended the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12131 et seq., to disabled state prisoners housed in county jails.

The order requires California officials with responsibility over the state’s corrections and parole systems to track and accommodate the needs of disabled state prisoners and parolees (referred to as Armstrong class members) who, for various reasons, are held in county jails, and to ensure that those class members have access to a workable grievance procedure. Similar protections had previously been ordered, and largely been in effect, since 1996 with respect to disabled prisoners housed in state prisons (including segregation units and reception centers). See: Armstrong v. Wilson, 124 F.3d 1019 (9th Cir. 1997) [PLN, Sept. 1998, p.13].

On any given day, California houses a significant number of state prisoners and parolees facing revocation hearings in county jails – a number that is increasing due to the state’s recent “realignment” initiative in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Plata. [See: PLN, July 2011, p.1].

In 2009, this included daily averages of 480 prisoners or parolees in the San Mateo County Jail, 1,000 prisoners or parolees in the Sacramento County Jail and 770 individuals in In-Custody Drug Treatment Program placements in jails throughout the state. Approximately 7 percent of this population is deemed to have mobility, sight, hearing and kidney disabilities covered by Armstrong.

In September 2009, the district court held there was sufficient evidence to find that Armstrong class members housed in county jails were not receiving the ADA accommodations to which they were entitled, and ordered system-wide relief. See: Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 261 F.R.D. 173 (N.D. Cal. 2009).

The state appealed the order, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and vacated in part, remanding the case for further proceedings. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s finding that the state has the legal responsibility to ensure ADA-compliant conditions for Armstrong class members housed in county jails. The Court of Appeals found the record in the case insufficient, however, to justify the system-wide relief ordered by the district court. Finding that “not much more evidence” was needed, the case was remanded for the taking of “such additional evidence as may be necessary.” See: Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010) [PLN, Nov. 2011, p.28].

On remand, the state no longer disputed that California state prisoners and parolees with mobility, sight, learning and developmental disabilities were not being provided proper ADA accommodations while housed at county jails, that they did not have access to a proper grievance system or that they were suffering as a result. Instead, they primarily argued that, under recent state legislation authorizing the realignment initiative, state parolees, when held in county jails, should no longer be considered members of the Armstrong class. The district court rejected this argument, finding that while parolees may be in the simultaneous custody and control of the county and state, they “do not cease being state parolees while they are also county jail inmates.” Thus, as before realignment, the state remains obligated to ensure ADA-compliant conditions for the prisoners and parolees they choose to house in county jails.

While its task was simplified by the state’s failure to dispute what the district court characterized as “overwhelming and disturbing evidence” that Armstrong class members in jails throughout the state were being injured and denied access to programs and services due to failures to accommodate their needs, the court complied with the Ninth Circuit’s instructions on remand by making additional findings before re-imposing system-wide relief.

On April 11, 2012, the district court ruled on the state’s motion to correct or modify its January 13 order. The court made minor modifications to its previous order but no substantive changes. The district court also denied the state’s request to stay its prior order pending another appeal, stating, “Defendants have not demonstrated a likelihood of success in overturning this Court’s order finding that system-wide relief is necessary.” See: Armstrong v. Brown, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. C 94-2307 CW; 2012 WL 1222928 (modified order).

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Related legal case

Armstrong v. Brown