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District Court Extends Armstrong Order to Five Additional California Prisons

Judge Orders Facilities Housing Disabled Prisoners
to Install Surveillance and Body Cameras

by Derek Gilna and Doug Ankney

On March 11, 2021, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in the Northern District of California ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to require its guards to wear body cameras and install surveillance cameras in the five state prisons where disabled prisoners are housed. The action came after decades of litigation by various prisoner rights law firms in the state that sued in response to credible complaints of systematic abuse of vulnerable prisoners.

This was an expansion of the injunctive relief from the Armstrong Remedial Plan, stemming from litigation which began 25 years ago.

The ruling followed a September 2020 order by the same judge that required cameras be installed at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego [See PLN, Mar. 2021, pg. 34].

A Brief History of Armstrong

In Armstrong v. Wilson, 942 F.Supp. 1252 (N.D. Cal. 1996), the court had held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA) applied to state prisoners and that the policies and procedures of the officials responsible for the operation of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (defendants) violated the plaintiffs’ (a class of all present and future prisoners with certain disabilities) rights under the ADA and the RA. The court ordered the defendants to develop plans, policies, and procedures, including disability-grievance procedures, to bring their facilities into compliance with the ADA and RA.

The defendants developed the plans, policies, and procedures which became known as the Armstrong Remedial Plan or ARP. The ARP, Section I, incorporated the ADA’s anti-discrimination and access provisions, 42 U.S.C. § 12132: “No qualified inmate or parolee with a disability as defined in Title 42 of the [U.S.C.] shall, because of that disability, be excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of services, programs, or activities of the Department or be subjected to discrimination.”

Over the years, in response to defendants’ violations of the ARP, plaintiffs moved for enforcement which resulted in the court modifying the injunction to clarify defendants’ duties and accountability obligations. See: Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger, 622 F.3d 1058 (9th Cir. 2010); Armstrong v. Brown, 768 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2014).

In February and June 2020, plaintiffs again filed enforcement motions alleging defendants’ employees were engaging in conduct that violated disabled prisoners’ rights under the ARP and ADA. The February 2020 motion concerned violations at the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility and the court ordered modifications to the ARP to end ongoing violations at that facility. The June 2020 enforcement motion is the subject of this review.

Expanding Armstrong

The 2020 plaintiffs presented uncontradicted affidavits from current and former prisoners at the five prisons describing dozens of incidents in which misconduct by staff led to disabled prisoners being denied reasonable accommodations for their disabilities.

Prisoners in the Enhanced Outpatient Placement (EOP) unit at California State Prison at Los Angeles County (LAC) reported numerous violations. (Prisoners in EOP require special housing because they are very ill, need special programming, and are unable to function in the general prison environment.)

Prisoner rights attorney Gay Grunfeld called Judge Wilken’s order “really a great victory for incarcerated people with disabilities.” This ground-breaking order—the first of its kind in California—requires CDCR officials to come up with plans for installing the cameras and other reforms at LAC, California State Prison at Corcoran (COR), Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF), California Institute for Women, and the Kern Valley State Prison.          

“We will be able to get some information and visibility on where the problems are so people can be held accountable,” said Grunfeld. “The body worn cameras and the audio-visual surveillance systems will greatly improve the current discipline system, which all too often ignores the testimony and information from incarcerated people and takes the word of accused officers as gospel.”

The court record is replete with sworn statements of dozens of prisoners at those five prisons who indicated that guards and other prison officials regularly denied them their rights under the ADA. Judge Wilken’s 71-page order referred to them often and in depth.

Wilken was clearly persuaded by those statements, explaining that the Court found the prisoners’ declarations to be credible. “The descriptions in these declarations of the behavior of staff toward disabled inmates are remarkably consistent.”

Her order continued, “Some of the incidents involve the use of force against mentally or physically disabled inmates even though the disabled inmates appear to have posed no imminent threat to the safety of staff or other inmates... (such as a) manic episode in December 2019, after which several officers brought (an) inmate to the ground. Once the inmate was under the control of the officers, one of the officers unloaded an entire can of pepper spray on the inmate, and then beat the inmate. Then, after the inmate was in handcuffs, the officers beat him again. The inmate now refrains from asking for help.”

In June of 2019, the judge noted that a Los Angeles prisoner with bipolar disorder was also struck: “After a mental health evaluation, he was being returned to his cell, while handcuffed, by two officers when the officers and the inmate had a verbal altercation; once they reached his cell, the officers slammed him to the ground face first and punched him in the head. The inmate now is afraid of asking for help for his disabilities.”

Another incident, the judge wrote, involved a third prisoner at that prison who, after seeking mental health counseling after learning of a cancer diagnosis for his father, instead was “sprayed in the face by the officer.”

CDCR responded with a statement saying that it was, “evaluating the judge’s order,” and would “take the safety and security of the incarcerated population very seriously, and vigorously work to protect those with disabilities.” The agency’s statement continued, “CDCR has taken steps to improve conditions for people in our care to accommodate for both physical and mental disabilities, including holding staff accountable for behavior that goes against the department’s values.”

The judge turned aside CDCR arguments that prisoners’ rights are not being violated, and required that cameras placed in housing units, exercise yards, dining areas, gyms, sally-ports and other areas and that video recordings be kept for at least 90 days.

 “The court is not persuaded,” Judge Wilken wrote, stating that without surveillance cameras mistreatment of disabled prisoners is “likely to continue.”

Five Prisons Remedial Plan

The court ordered prospective injunctive relief (referred to as the Five Prisons Remedial Plan) that included:

1. Installation of operational surveillance cameras that covered all areas of the five prisons;

2. Policies and procedures governing the use of body worn cameras to be worn by staff; the use of the footage including a requirement that all footage be stored for a minimum of ninety days and footage of use of force on disabled prisoners be retained indefinitely;

3. Reforms to the investigation of misconduct complaints against staff to ensure unbiased and thorough investigations and disciplinary procedures consistently enforced;

4. Third-party monitors to ensure that the reforms mandated in No. 3 above are implemented;

5. Develop an “early warning system” for tracking all staff misconduct incidents involving disabled prisoners at the five prisons;

6. Provide documentation of the misconduct complaints and investigations to plaintiffs’ counsel on a quarterly basis;

7. Increase supervisory staffing at the five prisons by posting additional sergeants on all watches on all yards;

8. Develop and implement training designed to eliminate violations of the ARP and ADA by staff at the five prisons;

9. Develop mechanisms to prevent and end retaliation against prisoners at the five prisons who report violations of the ARP or ADA or who report staff misconduct; and

10. Develop a plan to monitor and control the use of pepper spray at the five prisons.

The plaintiff class has been ably represented for over 27 years by the Prison Law Office and Rosen Bien Galvan Grunfeld of San Francisco. The defendant prison officials have, of course, appealed the order. See: Armstrong v. Newsom, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47083 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 11, 2021). 


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Related legal cases

Armstrong v. Newsom

Armstrong v. Brown

Armstrong v. Schwarzenegger