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Santa Clara County Settles Lawsuit, Makes Jails Handicapped Accessible

by Steve Horn

In November 2018, the parties in a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California agreed to settle the case in the form of a consent decree. The suit centered around issues of accessibility for handicapped prisoners in Santa Clara County’s jail system, specifically those with mobility disabilities. 

The class-action suit was filed in 2016, alleging the county’s jails had an utter lack of accommodations for disabled prisoners.

“Due to the lack of accessible cells, showers, and living units in the County Jails, many individuals with mobility disabilities are segregated in restrictive medical units despite the fact they do not require ongoing medical care, and/or are held in higher security and more restrictive settings than they otherwise would be but for their disabilities,” the complaint stated. “They are further denied access to educational, religious, and rehabilitative programs due to physical and programmatic barriers, and cannot even use the toilet and shower safely due to a lack of accessible features. Inmates are not informed of their rights, are not provided with a method for requesting reasonable modifications to policies and practices, and are denied access to a functioning and meaningful grievance system.”

Pointing to a lack of means of keeping track of prisoners with disabilities, which would allow jail staff to provided needed accommodations, the lawsuit said there was “not a single housing unit that is fully accessible in compliance with state and federal disability laws.” Thus, Santa Clara County was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiffs in the case were all disabled prisoners held in the county’s jail system.

According to the consent decree, the county will make substantial reforms to ensure compliance with the ADA. Those changes will include the construction of a number of ADA-accessible cells, housing units, restrooms and showers, among other improvements; modification of the booking area and process to better accommodate disabled prisoners; the use of a screening tool to identify and assess prisoners’ mobility disabilities upon intake; the ongoing review and revision, as needed, of all jail policies and procedures to address ADA compliance issues; the establishment of an ADA coordinator and ADA unit; and the procurement of an ADA electronic tracking system and establishment of an electronic ADA grievance system.

The county has budgeted over $100 million to ensure accessibility for disabled prisoners in compliance with the ADA.

The consent decree will remain in effect until 2023, when Santa Clara County plans to open a new jail. That facility, too, must comply with the ADA. Both the current jail facilities and the new one will face inspections to ensure accommodations for disabled prisoners. 

In addition to ADA-compliant infrastructure, Santa Clara County jails must also have sufficient equipment to ensure prisoners can maintain mobility. In most cases that means the use of wheelchairs, though motorized chairs remain prohibited except under rare circumstances. 

The case was spearheaded by the Berkeley, California office of Disability Rights Advocates (DRA).

“It’s important that persons with disabilities have the accommodations that they need to function safely in a jail setting,” DRA staff attorney Michelle Iorio said in a press release. “We are glad that Santa Clara County will make the changes necessary to ensure that programs and facilities at the Jails are more accessible for inmates with mobility disabilities.”

For its part, the county also lauded the agreement and pointed to the difficulties of crafting the consent decree in its own press release. 

“For the last three years, the County has tackled necessary jail reforms in a collaborative, deliberative, and transparent fashion resulting in improved conditions for inmates and their families, the staff, and our community,” stated Santa Clara County attorney James Williams. “With this settlement complete, the County can now finalize its work on the County’s larger efforts on jail reforms.”

Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith applauded the settlement but said additional changes were needed.

“We are proud of the work we have accomplished toward this end, but we have much more to achieve toward completing my advanced Jail Reform Plan,” she stated. 

The federal district court granted preliminary approval of the settlement on December 7, 2018, and the parties agreed on a total of $3.2 million in attorneys’ fees and costs for class counsel – which includes compliance monitoring during the term of the consent decree. 

The court scheduled a final approval hearing on March 21, 2019; in addition to DRA, the prisoner class members were represented by the law firm of Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP. See: Cole v. County of Santa Clara, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Cal.), Case No. 5:16-cv-06594-LHK. 


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Related legal case

Cole v. County of Santa Clara