9th Circuit upholds reforms in California prisons

Citing a “staff culture that appeals to inmates with disabilities” in California prisons, a federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the legality of a number of measures to improve the behavior of correctional officers.

The reforms, first ordered in 2020 by a federal district court judge in response to complaints from prisoners in a long-running state court case, include a requirement that officers in six state prisons carry video cameras and that the number of stationary cameras in prisons be reduced must increased. They are also demanding that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation add more supervisors to prison staff and improve procedures for investigating, prosecuting and disciplining officers who abuse prisoners.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the lower court’s orders, noting that the mandated changes were necessary given the ongoing abuse of disabled prisoners and the state’s “past failure to improve its accountability systems.” specific court-ordered instructions.”

The ruling is the latest twist in a class-action lawsuit filed in 1994 by prisoners with physical and mental disabilities who claimed the abuse they suffered because of their disabilities violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The panel’s findings were also further confirmation that the prisoners’ long-standing claims remain unresolved, in part because the state agency has not done enough to stop the abuse.

“In both of its orders, the district court found not only persistent violations of the rights of group members in the prisons, but also a common source of those violations: the lack of sufficient accountability measures to address officer misconduct, which fostered a staff culture inmates with.” targeting disabilities,” District Judge Michelle Friedland wrote for the appeals court. “The record supports both conclusions.”

Friedland, an Obama appointee, was supported in her decision by senior district judge Susan Graber, who was appointed by former President Clinton, and Trump-appointed district judge Eric Miller.

Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokeswoman, said the department is still reviewing the court’s decision but claimed many of the mandated reforms are already in place.

The department has expanded the use of surveillance and body-worn cameras “in state jails” and increased staff training, she said. In January 2022, it also issued new rules to investigate allegations of employee misconduct, she added.

“We are committed to ensuring accountability and results-based changes to address the issues raised by the district court,” Waters said.

Prisoner advocates said the changes were urgently needed to ensure grievances from incarcerated people with disabilities — which have not been addressed for decades — are addressed.

Gay Grunfeld, one of the prisoners’ attorneys, agreed that many of the reforms upheld by the Court of Appeals are already in place thanks to the lower court’s order, but said the superior court’s decision will help ensure the improvements are not reversed. She said the camera requirements are particularly important because “without cameras, there is a code of silence and detainees’ testimonies are not believed.”

Grunfeld said her team filed about 175 statements in court from prisoners describing the treatment they received from prison staff. The prisoners have a range of disabilities, including speech, hearing and mobility problems, kidney problems, learning disabilities and mental illness.

A prisoner struggling with mobility asked for help carrying a heavy package and an officer refused. When the prisoner threatened to press charges, the officer sprayed him with pepper spray, hit him with the spray can and then kicked him, Grünfeld said.

When another prisoner, using a cane, asked to be handcuffed in front of his body instead of behind him, an officer knocked him to the ground instead, Grunfeld said. Other prisoners with mental illness who asked for help after having suicidal thoughts were simply ignored, Grunfeld said.

“We have many, many of these very disturbing examples,” she said. “It’s all in.”

The ruling applies to six prisons in the state: the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego; the California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster; Kern Valley State Penitentiary in Delano; the California State Penitentiary in Corcoran; the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Penitentiary in Corcoran; and the California Institution for Women in Chino.

The appellate panel upheld all of the changes U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ordered for the San Diego facility, including the use of body cameras, surveillance cameras, increased surveillance, increased training and tracking, and restrictions on officers’ use of pepper spray.

For the other five facilities, the panel agreed with Wilken’s request for cameras, training and tracking of prison staff. It overturned her order mandating increased surveillance and new rules about pepper spray in those prisons – noting that there was insufficient evidence to establish the need for those measures.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already initiated changes to its pepper spray policy, adding sergeants to shifts to comply with the lower court’s order at all six facilities. When asked whether the appeals court’s decision not to maintain those mandates at five of the facilities would result in further changes, Waters said that “any next steps” would be determined by the state’s ongoing review of the appeals court’s decision.

Brandon Richards, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the governor’s office is reviewing the decision and has no further comment as of Thursday.

Grunfeld said she hopes the state won’t back down on any reforms, as they are all “vital to the oversight of civil servants.”

She said the appeals court’s decision “could not have come soon enough” given the national focus on law enforcement abuse – including the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the recent death of Tire Nichols by Memphis police.

“People in jails and jails are at even greater risk of the kind of brutality that we’ve been seeing across the country and that people are beginning to realize is so widespread, particularly against blacks and browns,” Grunfeld said.

The appeals court’s decision is not the end of the prisoners’ legal battle.

The district court has issued several remedial plans that the state must comply with in this case, and prisoner attorneys and a court-appointed expert are monitoring prisons for compliance with these plans — including by viewing body camera footage of alleged abuse officers and noting, whether the state is properly disciplining them, Grunfeld said.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-02-03/citing-abuse-9th-circuit-upholds-body-camera-other-reform-mandates-in-california-prisons 9th Circuit upholds reforms in California prisons

Alley Einstein

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