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CA: 'Realignment' Forcing Jail Improvements for Disabled Prisoners

A landmark case nearly 20 years ago forced California's Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to properly care for its disabled prisoners. Now, a federal lawsuit aims to do the same for those being held in the state's county jails.

Since California enacted the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act (known simply as "realignment") after a federal court ordered the state to shrink its prison population, CDCR has transferred masses of nonviolent prisoners and parole violators to county jails. Among them are thousands of disabled prisoners with special needs.

Lawyers for those prisoners argue that the state is violating their rights by subjecting them to inadequate care in county facilities.

In August 2012, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken deemed dozens of complaints from those prisoners–presented by lawyers in a federal suit–evidence of widespread violations. Then, she ordered CDCR to begin e-mailing jails with information about disabled prisoners, including past services they'd been provided. She also ordered that those prisoners receive grievance forms and for the state to investigate complaints.

County officials now worry that the cost of upgrading jails and caring for disabled prisoners will be huge and they'll be forced to pay for them out of their own budgets.

"I'm crossing my fingers that we can accommodate some of those needs here in our county," says Tulare County Undersheriff Dahl Cleek, whose jail was found by prisoner advocates to be in violation of disabled prisoners' rights last year. "But it's not like we have a built-in hospital in these jails. Those could bankrupt a county pretty quick."

Stop worrying and start complying, argues Gay Grunfeld, the lead attorney in a 1994 class-action suit against CDCR– known as the Armstrong case– that alleged disabled prisoners were being housed in poor conditions and were discriminated against by being prohibited equal access to programs and services. The plaintiffs ultimately prevailed, with disabled prisoners gaining access to showers, toilets, medical supplies and prison programs.

Jeanne Woodford, the former CDCR director who implemented the policy changes resulting from the Armstrong case, now says many county jails are in the same predicament prisons once were.

"County jails are providing accommodations only sporadically, resulting in significant harm to CDCR prisoners and parolees," Woodford says.

For now, the state and counties seem less concerned with correcting violations than they are about paying for the costs. CDCR has argued to Wilken, and Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation, stating that jail prisoners are under the counties' "sole legal custody and jurisdiction."


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