***Case and Media Updates***

On 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.”

On August 12 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.”

On July 2 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.”

On June 15 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.”

On June 12 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.”

On June 10 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.

Court documents:

Armstrong v Newsom Motion to Stop Defs from Assaulting, Abusing, Retaliating Against PWD, 06-03-2020

Declaration of Gay Grunfeld

Declaration of Michael Freedman and Exhibits 1-80

Declaration of Thomas Nolan and Exhibits A-FF

Declaration of Jeffrey A. Schwartz, Ph.D.

Proof of Service of Exhibit W-2 to Grunfeld Declaration

Proposed Order