The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld a ruling enforcing reforms aimed to protect incarcerated people with disabilities in California’s prisons from abuse by correctional officers, reported the Los Angeles Times.
The three-judge panel cited persistent problems with a “staff culture of targeting inmates with disabilities” in their decision.
The reforms stemmed from complaints of abuse from incarcerated people who are members of a class-action lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The original lawsuit, filed in 1994, alleged that abuse related to their mental and physical disabilities amounted to a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The 9th Ciruit Court upheld most of the reforms and said the mandates were necessary because of CDCR’s “prior failures to improve their accountability systems in the absence of specific, court-ordered instructions.”
The reforms, mandated by a federal District Court judge in 2020, aimed to improve the behavior of correctional officers.
The District Court’s ruling required body-cams in six prisons, more stationary cameras and restrictions on the use of pepper spray. CDCR was also directed to increase supervision of staff and improve protocols for investigating and tracking abuse as well as disciplining officers found responsible.
In their unanimous decision, Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland stated that the evidentiary record supports the conclusions of the lower court’s previous ruling.
Friedland wrote that this record indicated “ongoing violations of class member’s rights at the prisons, but also a common source of the violations: the lack of … measures to address officers’ misconduct, which fostered a staff culture of targeting inmates with disabilities.”
Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokesperson, said the department was reviewing the ruling and that many of the reforms were already implemented.
“We are committed to ensuring accountability and results-driven changes to address the issues raised by the District Court,” she said.
A plaintiffs’ attorneys, Gay Grunfeld, agreed that many of the reforms were already in place, adding that the 9th Circuit Court’s decision will help ensure that reforms aren’t undone, in particular the camera requirements.
“Without cameras, a code of silence reigns and the statements of incarcerated people are not believed,” Grunfeld said.
In an interview with CalMatters, a top prison expert provided context for the ongoing problems in the state’s prison system, as reported by ABC 10 News Sacramento.
“It used to be the model of prisons in the country. They used to have a big treatment orientation, they hired social workers, and basically it was at the forefront of a rehabilitative model of incarceration,” said Francis Cullen, former president of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the 2022 recipient of the prestigious Stockholm Prize in Criminology.
He noted that under Gov. Ronald Reagan, California’s prison population fell from 26,000 to 18,000. However, he explained that in the 1960s and ‘70s, there was an attack on the rehabilitative model for a variety of reasons.
“California became punitive in its politics,” Cullen said. “The things that were done … were all justified on the notion that we want inmates to suffer. The more they suffer, the less likely they will be to reoffend, which isn’t actually true. But that was the logic. And the result, I think, was a disaster.”
The six prisons named in the ruling are the men’s facilities in San Diego, Lancaster, Delano, and the two in Corcoran, as well as the women’s facility in Chino.
The 9th Circuit panel upheld all of the reforms ordered for the Richard J. Donovan prison in San Diego, and for the other five, it did not uphold the requirement for increased supervision and restriction on the use of pepper spray.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs’ and a court-appointed expert will continue to monitor compliance with the reforms, including reviews of camera footage of alleged incidents of abuse.
The original lawsuit, known as the Coleman class action, is ongoing.