***Case and Media Updates***
February 19, 2021
An Associated Press story on February 16, Reviews find poor oversight of California prisons, jails, reports that “Despite the state spending nearly $10 million a year to improve its handling of inmates’ allegations of staff misconduct, California’s inspector general said Tuesday the corrections department’s ‘process remains broken’ and is neither independent nor fair.” RBGG’s Gay Grunfeld is quoted in the article: “’It confirms what we have been arguing, which is the department’s investigation and discipline system is broken and biased,’ said attorney Gay Grunfeld, who represents inmates with disabilities in one of the major federal class-action lawsuits that guide many prison policies.” A copy of the OIG report is available here.
February 8, 2021
A Sacramento Bee article, In a first, California correctional officers at this prison must wear body cameras, quotes RBGG’s Gay Grunfeld:
“The court ruled that body cameras would likely improve investigations of misconduct by staff, and reduce the number of violations of disabled inmates’ rights. Gay Grunfeld, an attorney who represented inmates in that case, said that there was a lack of transparency at the Richard J. Donovan facility, and that inmates felt mistreated by guards. ‘There’s no bystanders with cellphones in a prison. They’re even more prone to abuse than people on the street,’ she said. In addition to body-worn cameras, the judge also ordered the department to install a audio-visual surveillance system at the prison.”
Disabled California Prisoners Say Mistreatment Persists Despite Court Orders, Courthouse News, December 8, 2020
According to the article, “Gay Grunfeld, an attorney representing dozens of disabled inmates, urged Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to order the the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to install surveillance cameras and ensure correctional officers are properly trained and disciplined. ‘They’re not safe,’ Grunfeld said of her clients. ‘Basically nothing is going to happen to protect our class until there are further efforts toward reform — starting with cameras and a better discipline system, training and an early warning system.’”
Judge Wilken yesterday extended her preliminary injunction regarding the protection of two incarcerated witnesses. Today she granted a protective order preventing CDCR from taking the depositions of 13 incarcerated witnesses. Both documents linked below.
Plaintiffs filed their Reply in Support of Motion to Stop Defendants from Assaulting, Abusing and Retaliating Against People with Disabilities, along with supporting declarations. All documents are linked below. According to the Reply: “The evidence shows, however, that the same fundamental problem that led the Court to grant relief at RJD—Defendants’ inability to hold officers accountable for ADA violations—exists throughout California’s prisons. The same remedies are therefore needed to finally put an end to the harm being suffered by Armstrong class members.”
September 8, 2020
Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California granted in part Plaintiffs’ Motion to Stop Defendants from Assaulting, Abusing and Retaliating Against People with Disabilities at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (“RJD Motion”). The Court’s two orders are linked here: Injunction Order 09-08-20 and Order for Additional Remedial Measures, 09-08-2020. Judge Wilken found that the systemic abuses against incarcerated people with disabilities—documented in more than one hundred declarations and in other evidence establishing that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) had been aware of the problems for years—violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and court orders previously issued in Armstrong v. Newson, 94-cv-2307. As a remedy, the Court required Defendants to develop a plan within 21 days to put an end to the violation of Armstrong class members’ rights at the San Diego prison. Among other measures, the Court’s order requires that CDCR install security cameras and use body-worn cameras throughout the prison, reform the staff complaint and disciplinary process, and increase supervisory staffing on all prison yards. The Court also appointed an expert to oversee CDCR’s implementation of the mandated reforms. The Court is still considering Plaintiffs’ Motion to improve accountability and reduce staff misconduct against people with disabilities at prisons across the State.
The Los Angeles Times in an article on September 8, 2020, Judge orders body cameras on guards at state prison, citing evidence of officers abusing inmates, quoted RBGG’s Gay Grunfeld, “Body cameras have never been used in California prisons. This is a very important order to help put an end to physical abuse and broken bones of those with physical disabilities at this most dangerous of prisons. . . Body cameras can bring sound and context to situations that involve the use of force which surveillance cameras cannot.”
The San Francisco Chronicle covered the Court’s orders on September 9, 2020, quoting RBGG’s Grunfeld and Michael Freedman: Disabled inmates ‘have been subjected to horrific abuse and retaliation at that prison for far too long,’ and Wilken’s order is a step in the right direction, said Gay Grunfeld, a lawyer for the inmates. She said she would seek similar orders for other prisons. Michael Freedman, another attorney for the inmates, said it may be the first U.S. court order to require body cameras in a prison. The lawsuit, filed in 1994, first made judicial history years ago with rulings requiring prisons to accommodate inmates’ disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Judge Wilkin indicated in a court hearing in federal court in Oakland that she would likely order additional protections for California prisoners with disabilities the R.J. Donovan facility in San Diego and throughout the California prison system who have been suffering abuse and violent retaliation at the hands of prison guards. A Daily Journal article, “New protections for disabled prisoners my be ordered,” quoted RBGG’s Michael Freedman, “Plaintiffs have submitted substantial evidence that the conduct of defendant’s officers violates the ADA and this court’s prior orders. Since its inception this case has been about putting an end to defendant’s discrimination against people with disabilities. Plaintiff’s motion here expresses exactly the same problem.”
Judge Claudia Wilken issued a temporary restraining order (see Armstrong TRO 07-02-20) requiring that CDCR transfer two prisoners from the R.J. Donovan facility in San Diego who had been retaliated against by guards for making statements to lawyers about previous guard violence against prisoners with disabilities. An article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Judge orders transfer of two inmates who said guards assaulted them, quotes RBGG’s Michael Freedman, “For years, correctional officers in CDCR have abused incarcerated people without accountability or repercussions,” he said, referring to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “As a result, CDCR is an exceedingly dangerous place in which even witnesses in a federal civil rights lawsuit are in danger.”
RBGG’s Michael Freedman and Gay Grunfeld are quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article, Federal judge in Oakland hears of prison staff brutality against disabled inmates. According to the article, “Michael Freedman, a San Francisco attorney representing the inmates, called the case ‘one of the groundbreaking lawsuits under the ADA’ because it established that the federal civil rights law applied to prison systems and required California prisons to accommodate people with a range of disabilities. But over the past few years, Freedman said, disabled inmates have been reporting attacks and intimidation by prison staff that have undermined past court orders and made prisoners fearful of asking for help.”
A Sacramento Bee article, Should California prison guards wear body cameras? Lawyers demand them in disability case, quoted RBGG Managing Partner Gay Grunfeld, “Our goal is to stop the pernicious abuse of people with disabilities in the California prison system. But one reform is absolutely vital: transparency, through the installation of surveillance cameras and the requirement that body cameras be used.”
The Voice of San Diego published a story, Explosive Complaints Allege Abuse, Assault by Donovan Corrections Officers, that includes comments from RBGG’s Penny Godbold: “One of our overarching concerns about the situation is that we think what’s happening with police brutality inside prison is really the same sort of violence that there is an international uproar over police misconduct outside of prison. I think many people don’t realize that it doesn’t stop on the streets. People who are in custody in the prison context are really isolated from the outside world, so the brutality in prison is sometimes not as obvious to the public as what we see in the streets and in the news.”
***Original Press Release***
San Francisco – June 4, 2020 – On June 3, 2020, attorneys for a class of California prisoners and parolees with disabilities filed a Motion to Stop Defendants from Assaulting, Abusing and Retaliating Against Persons With Disabilities (“Motion”) in federal district court in a long-standing ADA class action, Armstrong v. Newsom, N.D. Cal. No. 4:94-cv-02307-CW. The Motion seeks a remedial plan to stop correctional officers throughout the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) from assaulting and terrorizing incarcerated people with disabilities. The Motion is related to and expands upon a motion filed by Plaintiffs on February 28, 2020 motion (“RJD Motion”), which described similar harm and seeks similar relief for incarcerated people with disabilities at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (“RJD”) in San Diego, California. Court documents filed by plaintiffs on June 3 are linked at the bottom of this post.
The class of prisoners and parolees with disabilities is represented by Michael Bien, Gay Grunfeld, Thomas Nolan, Penny Godbold and Michael Freedman of RBGG; Donald Specter, Rita Lomio and Margot Mendelson of Prison Law Office, and Linda Kilb of Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.
The June 3, 2020 motion includes thirty-nine declarations from people with disabilities at CSP – Los Angeles County (“LAC”), California Correctional Institution, the Substance Abuse and Treatment Facility, CSP – Corcoran, and Kern Valley State Prison, describing brutal assaults and abuse committed by officers. The declarations from LAC are particularly troubling, as Plaintiffs have been raising problems with staff misconduct at that prison since 2017. Plaintiffs also filed nineteen additional declarations from people with disabilities at RJD, describing misconduct that has occurred in just the last few months. Plaintiffs had previously submitted fifty-four declarations from people with disabilities regarding horrific abuses at RJD.
As is set forth in the declarations, officers at these prisons are throwing people out of wheelchairs, attacking people when they cannot hear spoken orders, beating people with disabilities who request accommodations or help, closing cell doors on people who use walkers and wheelchairs, and attacking suicidal people when they ask for mental health care. Broken bones, stitches, loss of consciousness and injuries that require treatment at outside hospitals are routine. Those who complain about mistreatment often face further abuse.
The systemic, omnipresent violence and retaliation have made incarcerated people too afraid to ask staff for basic disability accommodations, either informally or using the court-ordered disability grievance process. Out of fear, people have foregone requesting the help they need to access programs and services in the prison.
Plaintiffs have also submitted a report from Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert on use of force and officer discipline, in which he found that CDCR’s staff complaint, investigation, and discipline systems are broken at every level. Mr. Schwartz further found that CDCR cannot hope to fix the system until it installs fixed surveillance cameras in its prisons. Unfortunately, as part of the May Revise to the State budget, Governor Newsom removed a previously-proposed plan to spend $21.6 million to install cameras at RJD and two other prisons.
In Mr. Schwartz’s report, finalized on June 1, 2020, he wrote: “[O]ur country is in the midst of a national crisis brought on by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. I am struck by the similarities between that awful case and what is unfolding in CDCR; multiple allegations of staff misconduct against the responsible officer and an utter failure to hold staff accountable before it is too late. There is one stark difference in the George Floyd case—the nation is outraged by the conduct because a video of the misconduct exists. Unfortunately, we do not have video of alleged misconduct at RJD, or throughout CDCR, and that is a travesty.”
Plaintiffs’ Motion requests that the Court issue a comprehensive remedial order requiring CDCR to create a plan to address the crisis. Among the remedies Plaintiffs seek are:
- Fixed surveillance camera coverage and body-worn cameras at the prisons with the worst misconduct
- Reforms to and third-party oversight of CDCR’s staff complaint, investigation, and discipline process so that officers are held accountable for harming people with disabilities
- Enhanced staffing
- Cultural and anti-retaliation training
- Data collection and early warning system
The Court has scheduled a hearing on the Motion and the RJD Motion for July 21, 2020.