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Federal Court Orders Body Cams Be Worn by Guards in Effort to Stop Abuse of Disabled at California Prison

The case has a long procedural history. In 1994, named Plaintiff John Armstrong and other similarly situated disabled prisoners (“Plaintiffs”) sued the governor of California and other state officials responsible for the operation of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) (collectively (“Defendants”). In 1996, the parties entered into a stipulation requiring the Defendants to operate programs, activities, services, and facilities of the CDCR in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. (“ADA”) and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“RA”).

The stipulation became effective after the Court held that the ADA and RA applied to state prisoners and held that Defendants’ policies and procedures violated Plaintiff’s rights. Armstrong v. Wilson, 942 F.Supp. 1252 (N.D. Cal. 1997). In September 1996, the Court entered a Remedial Order and Injunction requiring Defendants to develop plans, policies, and procedures, including disability grievance procedures, to ensure their facilities complied with the ADA and RA.

In 2001, an Amended Remedial Plan (“ARP”) was ordered by the Court. Section I of the ARP incorporated the ADA’s anti-discrimination and access provisions that provides that no person with a qualifying disability that shall be excluded from participation in or denied benefits of any services, programs, or activities because of the disability or be subjected to discrimination. 42 U.S.C. §12132. In February and June of 2020, Plaintiffs filed two motions (“Enforcement Motions”) seeking enforcement of the ARP, claiming Defendant’s employees were engaging in conduct violative of Plaintiff’s rights under the ADA and RA.

Allegations in the Enforcement Motions from 66 class members included:

(1) a hearing-impaired prisoner indicated with his hands that he could only communicate via writing after a guard began screaming at him; in response, the guard punched him in the face and now the prisoner is afraid to ask for writing supplies to communicate;

(2) a mobility impaired prisoner who uses a can and walker requested he not be handcuffed behind his back; in response, the guard slammed him to the floor, knocking the prisoner unconscious and requiring hospitalization;

(3) numerous prisoners using wheelchairs reported being forcibly yanked from their chairs, beaten, pepper sprayed, then slammed to the ground;

(4) a visually impaired prisoner reported being punched in the jaw after explaining to the guard that the shining of a flashlight into his eyes exacerbated his condition and he was then threatened with a false disciplinary report if he complained; and

(5) numerous disabled prisoners reported that guards paid other prisoners to rob and beat them.

Many of the allegations were substantiated by surveillance video. Experts from both Plaintiffs and Defendants stated the abuse was rampant because staff were seldom held accountable. The experts agreed that more surveillance cameras and additional supervisory staffing were needed. The experts also opined that RJD staff targeted prisoners with disabilities because they are more vulnerable and less likely to fight back.

To prove a public program violated the ADA, a plaintiff must show (1) he is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) he was excluded or denied benefits of services, programs, or activities or was otherwise discriminated against; and (3) and the exclusion, denial of benefits, or discrimination was by reason of his disability. Duvall v. Cty. of Kitsap, 260 F.3d 1124 (9th Cir. 2001).

The second element of that test can be satisfied where law enforcement officers use unreasonable force during the performance of their duties. Sheehan v. City & Cty. of San Francisco, 743 F.3d 1211 (9th Cir. 2014). Judge Wilken reasoned that the second prong could be satisfied where a correctional officer used unreasonable and unnecessary force during the performance of his duties.

Concluding that the Defendants violated the Plaintiff’s rights under the ADA and RA, Judge Wilken ordered: (a) installation of additional stationary surveillance cameras and officer-worn body cameras at RJD; (b) drafting and implementation of policies and procedures regarding use of cameras and storage/retrieval of video footage; (c) reforms to the complaint and disciplinary process of officers accused of violations to ensure officers are held accountable; (d) third-party monitoring to ensure Defendants are complying with the Court’s orders; (e) sharing of information by Defendants with the Court and Plaintiff’s counsel regarding complaints and discipline; (f) significant increase in supervisory staff; (g) training for staff on proper treatment of disabled prisoners and proper reporting of abuse; (h) development of mechanisms to end retaliation against staff and prisoners who report violations of the ADA and RA; and (i) a plan to monitor and control the use of pepper spray.

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