Gay Grunfeld, Michael Bien, Penny Godbold and  Michael Freedman  of RBGG filed a motion in federal court in Oakland on February 28, 2020 seeking a remedial plan to stop correctional officers at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional facility (“RJD”) in San Diego County from assaulting and terrorizing incarcerated people with disabilities.  The press release is set out below.  The motion is here:  Motion to Stop Defs from Assaulting, Abusing and Retaliating Against People w Disabilities at RJD, 2-28-2020  A proposed order and exhibits, including plaintiff declarations, are set out and linked at the conclusion of the press release.

Attorneys for Prisoners With Disabilities File Motion to Stop Guards at Correctional Facility in San Diego from Assaulting and Terrorizing Inmates
San Francisco – February 28, 2020 – On February 28, 2020, attorneys for a class of California prisoners and parolees with disabilities filed their Motion to Stop Defendants from Assaulting, Abusing and Retaliating Against Persons With Disabilities at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in federal district court in a long-standing ADA class action, Armstrong v. Newsom, N.D. Cal. No. 4:94-cv-02307-CW. Plaintiff’s Motion seeks a remedial plan to stop correctional officers at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional facility (“RJD”) in San Diego County from assaulting and terrorizing incarcerated people with disabilities.

As alleged in the fifty-four declarations filed with the Motion, officers are throwing people out of wheelchairs, punching deaf people when they cannot hear spoken orders, beating people with disabilities who request help carrying heavy packages, closing cell doors on people who use walkers and wheelchairs, and attacking suicidal people when they ask for mental health care. Broken bones, shattered teeth, bloodied faces, and concussions are routine.

Those who complain about mistreatment become the officers’ next victims or are tagged with discipline for “resisting”—even when they have intellectual disabilities or are otherwise too fearful to dispute the charges. As one class member described his time at RJD: “I just want to die[.] I got beat up by officers on the yard, look at my bruises[.] I can’t do it anymore. Please, just leave me alone[.] I just want to go to sleep.”

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 wheelchair pushers, wheelchair repairs, hearing aid batteries, writing supplies needed to communicate, access to mental health clinicians when they are feeling unwell, and toilet paper, clean clothes, and showers when they soil themselves.

This widespread abuse has destroyed the protections at the heart of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Armstrong Remedial Plan: the right to request and receive reasonable accommodations and to be free from discrimination based on disability. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) has known of profound problems at RJD and other high-security prisons for years. In 2015, California’s Inspector General recommended installation of cameras to combat violence at High Desert State Prison. In 2016, Plaintiffs’ counsel began notifying CDCR of horrific allegations of misconduct at RJD. In 2018, CDCR’s own auditors and Plaintiffs’ counsel each wrote to CDCR regarding significant reports of abuse of people with disabilities.

CDCR sent a “strike team” to conduct more than one hundred interviews withincarcerated people on one yard at RJD. Investigators heard over and over again that officers were targeting people with disabilities with violence, hiring incarcerated people to assault other incarcerated people, retaliating against anyone who dared speak up, and engaging in “gang-like” activity. CDCR’s Chief Ombudsman, who reports directly to the Secretary of CDCR, wrote that she had never previously heard “accusations like these in all my years” or “such despair, hopelessness, and fear from inmates.”

In the face of this crisis at RJD, CDCR’s response has been shockingly inadequate. Since January 1, 2017, CDCR has only issued terminations to five RJD officers for engaging in misconduct against incarcerated people. Despite evidence of criminal assaults, not a single officer has been criminally charged for hurting an incarcerated person. CDCR still has not completed investigations into many of the allegations, and has largely failed to document staff misconduct allegations on the non-compliance logs mandated by the Court.

Despite installing cameras at High Desert State Prison and universal agreement among correctional experts that cameras improve accountability and transparency, the vast majority of RJD still has no camera coverage and will not until June 2021, at the earliest. The vast majority of other CDCR prison also lack camera coverage. CDCR has no functioning system to investigate or track allegations of misconduct and no early warning system to detect problems.

Horrifying staff assaults involving serious injuries and trauma and retaliation for complaints continue to occur on a regular basis, including nearly thirty incidents in the last six months at RJD alone. The abuses at RJD are shocking, but not unique; staff misconduct against people with disabilities is a systemic problem at many of CDCR’s high-security prisons, as reflected in multiple reports issued by the Office of the Inspector General, advocacy from Plaintiffs’ counsel, and a court order in Coleman v. Newsom requiring CDCR to improve its use of force policies for people with mental illness.

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:

  • Camera coverage and policies regarding tape retention and use
  • Enhanced staffing
  • Cultural and anti-retaliation training
  • Data collection and early warning system
  • Increased oversight from headquarters
  • Criminal referrals and staff discipline

Until prisoners with disabilities are protected, no other efforts towards disability access, population reduction, or rehabilitation can work. CDCR has recently directed millions of dollars in taxpayer funds towards programming, enhanced education, and drug treatment for the incarcerated population. These efforts are in vain for so long as incarcerated people, especially the most vulnerable, are afraid to ask for help or interact with correctional officers. As one  class member put it:

“I am trying my best, but I do not have a healthy outlet for all of the stress and anxiety caused by the environment at RJD. I feel like staff took away my sense of safety and my peace of mind. Staff have thrown my sense of right and wrong off balance because the very people who took an oath to protect me are the ones causing so much harm to me and others. It has made it hard to be a good person.”

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Exhibits filed with Motion on 2/28/20:
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