Federal judge hears of Calif. prison staff brutality against disabled inmates
The lawsuit is one of several long-running cases by inmate advocates complaining of substandard healthcare and mistreatment of vulnerable populations
By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Conditions in California prisons have been dismal enough in the past decade to prompt U.S. Supreme Court intervention. The situation has gotten worse in many prisons during the coronavirus pandemic, but for thousands of physically and mentally disabled inmates, according to a recent court filing, things are downright terrifying.
Citing more than 100 sworn declarations from inmates, lawyers told a federal judge in Oakland on June 3 that prison staff “routinely use unnecessary and excessive force against people with disabilities, often resulting in broken bones, loss of consciousness, stitches or injuries that require medical attention at outside hospitals.”
Among the alleged atrocities by prison officers and staff:
- When a mentally disabled inmate at Corcoran State Prison in Kings County tried to file a grievance about a search in September, officers beat him, “knocking him unconscious multiple times and breaking his jaw, resulting in his jaw being wired shut for three months.”
- In April, officers at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility, also in Corcoran, “threw a hard-of-hearing (inmate) with broken hearing aids to (the) ground for being unable to hear an order to come out of his cell.”
- Officers at the state prison in Lancaster (Los Angeles County) “threw an individual out of his wheelchair for requesting help cleaning up (his) cell after his catheter bag broke and leaked urine and blood” in June 2018.
- Staff at the same prison in March “pushed a (mentally disabled inmate) head first into the floor after the individual refused to be housed in a cell with a person suspected of having COVID-19.”
These and similar allegations come to light as Gov. Gavin Newsom has withdrawn funding for surveillance cameras at three prisons, citing the state’s pandemic-induced fiscal crisis.
The lawsuit is one of several long-running cases by inmate advocates complaining of substandard health care and mistreatment of vulnerable populations in the nation’s largest prison system. In 2011, the Supreme Court ordered California to lower the inmate population by 30,000 to reduce overcrowding that made adequate medical care virtually impossible.
Disabled inmates filed their lawsuit in 1994, accusing the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. They won federal court orders in 2001, 2007 and 2012 finding that California failed to comply with the law and ordering the prisons to investigate complaints and improve their practices.
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.
His co-counsel, Gay Grunfeld, also in San Francisco, said, “If you’re in a wheelchair and you ask for help and they throw you out of the wheelchair, it’s not just assault, it’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.” She said inmates who file those complaints are often met with “retaliation and violence.”
Dana Simas, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the allegations in recent filings. “We take the safety and security of inmates very seriously, and will be carefully reviewing the complaint,” she said.
Freedman said the incident involving the inmate who refused to be housed alongside a coronavirus sufferer appeared to be a rarity, as the prisons are seldom transferring inmates to new locations during the pandemic. But he said there was another, less encouraging comparison with current events: the absence of cameras to record prison assaults.
It was the video of the death of George Floyd with a Minneapolis police officer’s knee on his neck that led to global protests and demands for police accountability, Freedman said. He said inmates were hoping for similar accountability when state officials, in response to recent filings in the lawsuit, agreed to install surveillance cameras at three prisons, and Newsom proposed $21.6 million to pay for them. But Newsom withdrew the funding, and canceled the project, in budget cuts last month to address the state’s $54 billion deficit.
The prison system is “a black box,” Freedman said. The court filing included a declaration from Jeffrey Schwartz, an expert on use of force, who said there was “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 (California prisons), and that is a travesty.”
Now, the inmates’ lawyers want U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken to order the state to install cameras at eight prisons, to require prison guards to wear and use body cameras, and to improve staff supervision and training. Wilken has scheduled a hearing for July 21.
Inmates’ lawyers said the department has fired nine prison staff members for mistreatment of prisoners in five incidents since the start of 2017, all of them involving prisoners with disabilities. But during that period, the lawyers said, they presented more than 140 reports of misconduct against disabled inmates at a single prison, in Lancaster, and the department apparently has not disciplined any officers or changed any practices at the prison.
To the contrary, the court filing said, officers have “harassed non-custody staff who show any kindness and compassion toward incarcerated people,” such as a social worker at the prison in San Diego who, according to a sworn declaration, quit because of “intolerable working conditions.”
Last month at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano (Kern County), the filing alleged, a guard threatened to kill an inmate who reported misconduct to the lawyers.
In another incident this year, Rodney Gravesbey, a 68-year-old inmate with mental illness, and his cellmate at Richard J. Donovan State Prison in San Diego were feuding, the lawyers said. They said multiple witnesses reported that the inmates repeatedly asked guards to assign them to separate cells for their safety — but that the guards repeatedly responded, in coarse language, that they should get along or fight to prove they couldn’t.
When they came to blows in their cell on Feb. 4, the filing said, guards did not respond for 15 to 30 minutes. Gravesbey died of his injuries 15 days later.
©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle