For Immediate Release

Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed California’s obligation to hold prison staff accountable for ongoing discrimination, abuse, and retaliation against incarcerated people with disabilities.  The Ninth Circuit also affirmed common-sense and necessary remedies—including fixed-surveillance and body-worn cameras and reforms to the process for investigating and disciplining staff—intended to hold officers accountable when they violate the rights of incarcerated people.  The RBGG team on the matter includes Gay Grunfeld, Michael Bien, Michael Freedman, Penny Godbold and Adrienne Harrold.  The court’s opinion is here.

In Armstrong v. Newsom, a class action on behalf of incarcerated people with disabilities in California prisons, a district court previously determined that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) discriminates against people with disabilities and fails to provide accommodations in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The court repeatedly ordered the State to put in place measures put an end to the systemwide violations.

In 2020, after CDCR again failed to comply with those prior orders, Plaintiffs, represented by Rosen Bien Galvan & Grunfeld LLP, the Prison Law Office, and the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Inc. (“Plaintiffs’ counsel”), filed enforcement motions.  Plaintiffs’ experts and more than 150 declarations from incarcerated people showed a pattern of prison staff targeting disabled people for abuse, and retaliating against those who reported the abuse.  In one incident, an officer refused a class member with a mobility disability’s request for help carrying a heavy package; when the class member threatened to file a complaint, the officer pepper-sprayed the person in the face, hit him the face with the pepper-spray canister, and then kicked him.  In another incident, an incarcerated person with a mobility disability requested to be handcuffed in front of his body, rather than behind his back, so that he could use his cane.  Instead of providing this accommodation, the officer body-slammed him to the concrete floor, knocking him unconscious, then kneeing him in the face when he awoke.  In yet another incident, an officer punched a deaf incarcerated person in the face when the incarcerated person requested the officer communicate with him in writing to accommodate his hearing disability.  As California’s own internal auditor acknowledged, “I have never heard accusations like these in all my years ….  This is a very serious situation and needs immediate attention.”

To address these violations, the district court issued orders directing California to develop measures necessary to prevent further violations of incarcerated people’s ADA rights at six prisons:  R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility, CSP-Los Angeles County, CSP-Corcoran, Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, California Institute for Women, and Kern Valley State Prison.

In a unanimous opinion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the orders almost in their entirety.  The Ninth Circuit held that the district court had the authority to address the ADA violations presented in Plaintiffs’ motions, explaining that “the mere fact that the … violations … were sometimes accompanied by excessive force does not negate that they were also textbook denials of reasonable accommodations under the ADA.”  The Court affirmed the district court’s finding that officers’ retaliation against incarcerated people “who request accommodations or who report denials of accommodations deters inmates from pursuing accommodations in the first place.  The result is that inmates do not receive the accommodations required by the ADA.”

The Ninth Circuit also held that the “record amply support[ed]” the district court’s critical finding that these ADA violations had a “common source”: CDCR’s “lack of sufficient accountability measures to address officers’ misconduct.”  As the Court explained, “those failures of accountability corrupted the staff culture at the prisons” and “creat[ed]a vicious cycle”:

       “If prison staff are not held accountable when they unlawfully fail to accommodate disabled inmates—or when they retaliate against inmates who report such misconduct—disabled inmates will stop speaking up.  And if prisoners do not speak up, there is less opportunity to hold officers accountable.  Failing to hold officers accountable, in turn, can embolden staff by suggesting that they can violate inmates’ rights with impunity—further discouraging disabled inmates from speaking up, as the threat of retaliation grows.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed almost all of the remedies ordered by the district court to address the State’s failure to hold staff accountable.  The reforms include utilizing fixed-surveillance and body-worn cameras, reforming the process to investigate and discipline officers, providing additional staff training, creating an early warning system, monitoring by the Court Expert and Plaintiffs’ counsel, and increasing criminal referrals.  Such reforms are consistent with steps the California Legislature has taken to hold police more accountable through increasing access to public records of sustained violations of law and policy.  Without cameras and a robust investigation system, such violations have routinely been ignored.

The court vacated only two remedies—additional staff and reforms to pepper-spray policies—and did so only at five of the six prisons addressed in the orders on appeal.  Of note, CDCR has already implemented and embraced both of those remedies at the five impacted prisons.  In fact, in a recent court filing the State praised the additional sergeants as having a positive impact and asserted it “will continue to maximize these resources.”  California should keep these much needed reforms in place.

Plaintiffs’ counsel thanks the hundreds of brave incarcerated people who participated in this effort, who risked dangerous retaliation for speaking up for themselves and all incarcerated people with disabilities in CDCR.  In some cases, we thank their families as they did not survive the harrowing experience of incarceration in California’s brutal system.  Plaintiffs’ counsel will continue to work to implement these much needed reforms to California’s broken investigation and discipline process until all officers are held accountable for violating class members’ ADA rights.

Selected Media Coverage:

9th Circuit upholds California prison reforms, citing abuse of inmates with disabilities, Los Angeles Times, February 3, 2023

Court orders California prisons to install cameras, outfit guards with body cameras to deter abuse, San Francisco Chronicle, February 2, 2023

Media Contacts:

Gay Crosthwait Grunfeld
Rosen Bien
Galvan & Grunfeld LLP
(415) 433-6830

Donald Specter
Prison Law Office
(510) 280-2621

Linda D. Kilb
Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Inc.
(510) 644-2555