In Blistering Ruling, Federal Judge Orders Video Surveillance & Body Cams in 5 CA Prisons to Stop Abuse of Men & Women With Disabilities

Celeste Fremon
Written by Celeste Fremon

On Thursday, March 11, Senior U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken handed down a  blistering ruling that ordered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to institute a series of changes with which the judge hopes to put a stop to what she describes as a pattern of systemic abuse of incarcerated people with disabilities at five of the state’s prisons.

The abuse and various related violations were documented in more than one hundred declarations by present and past residents of the prisons, along with other evidence that, according to Judge Wilken, suggests that the CDCR has been aware of these problems for years.

The five facilities named are California State Prison, Los Angeles County (LAC); California State Prison, Corcoran (COR); Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (SATF); California Institute for Women (CIW); and Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP).

In her 71-page ruling, Wilken described a disturbing pattern of abuse of the five lock-ups’ residents who qualify for special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

U.S. District Judge Claudia Ann Wilken

These disabled residents “are vulnerable to abuse,” wrote Judge Wilken, “and less able than others to defend themselves in light of their disabilities.”

In the text of her ruling, the judge listed some of the incidents described in the declarations. In many cases the incident begins when a prison resident asks for some kind of accommodation that he or she needs, and how the request is refused. Then, in certain of the cases, some brand of physical abuse follows after the refusal.

The residents also report how they are discouraged from accessing the various prisons’ grievance processes in order to report the abuse they have experienced, or to document that they are being denied what they need to function adequately, given their disability.

Bad investigations

A large part of the problem, according to the judge, has to do with the CDCR’s system of investigating staff misconduct which remains “deficient and ineffective.”

Thus, according to the ruling, if residents with disabilities do persist and try to file a grievance alleging abuse, violence, or neglect — or all three — the investigative system “cannot be relied upon to hold wardens and staff accountable.”

Judge Wilken’s assessment of the CDCR’s grievance system is strongly supported by a recent report issued by the California Office of the Inspector General, on February 16, 2021, which mirrors her conclusions.

In the February report, the OIG wrote that, despite the fact that the state had just spent nearly $10 million a year to improve its handling of inmates’ allegations of staff misconduct, the CDCR’s investigative process “remains broken” and is “neither independent nor fair.

As it happens, this is far from the first time the judge has taken a good hard look at the CDCR’s broken system when it comes to incarcerated men and women with disabilities.

In 1996, Wilken determined that the CDCR’s policies and procedures “with regard to disabled prisoners” were “inadequate and violative” of the ADA, and ordered the CDCR to develop a “remedial plan” to “fulfill its obligations to disabled prisoners under federal law.”

Yet, although, between 1996 and now,  the judge has issued a series of further orders,  very little appears to have changed.

And the judge is not happy.

“….the court has found,” she wrote in the ruling released last week, “that staff failed on numerous occasions to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of disabled inmates.”

With all of the above in mind, Judge Wilken has now ordered her own remedial prescription for the five prisons named in this newest ruling.

Cameras and monitoring pepper spray

The main change that Wilken has now ordered is the installation of surveillance cameras, which are to cover all areas of each of the five facilities to which disabled residents have access.

The cameras must cover, at minimum, “all exercise yards, housing units, sally-ports, dining halls, program areas, and gyms.”

Furthermore, all correctional officers at the same five prisons, must begin using body-worn cameras, according to the new order, if they “have any interactions with disabled inmates.”

As for the footage gathered by the cameras, if it in any way documents use of force “and other triggering events involving disabled inmates,” it must be retained “indefinitely.” Furthermore, that footage is to be be “reviewed and considered as part of the investigation of any incident.”

Judge Wilken ordered other changes, such as a mandate for the CDCR to develop a system to monitor and control how much pepper spray is used on disabled inmates. She has also ordered a new electronic system to track incidents of misconduct.

In addition, the CDCR must reform the staff complaint and disciplinary process, and increase supervisory staffing.

And just to make sure the above gets done, Judge Wilken has appointed an expert to oversee the CDCR’s implementation of the mandated reforms.

Interestingly, according to the attorneys at Rosen, Bien, Galvan & Grunfeld, the firm that brought the lawsuit, Judge Wilken’s recent orders were built upon earlier orders that she issued in September 2020, after finding similar violations and at R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility (“RJD”) in San Diego.

The Donovan order represents the first time that correctional officers have been required to wear body cameras inside a California prison.

Abuse and neglect

The body of the ruling portrays a pattern of everyday humiliations experienced by those with disabilities, such as the resident who was allegedly repeatedly denied the assistance needed to take an ADA shower, to the point where the resident just stopped asking.

In other declarations, incarcerated people described being pepper sprayed severely when they reportedly presented no threat.

In one such case,  a man suffering from extreme depression at LAC requested an appointment with his mental health clinician after he learned “his father had been diagnosed with cancer. ” Instead, he was pepper sprayed, wrote the judge.

In another case, a man who asked for his prescribed medication was reportedly beaten by a corrections officer, according to the declaration of a witness who reportedly viewed the incident. The man, like some of the others, is now reportedly afraid to ask for any kind of appropriate treatment.

Sometimes the stories simply describe neglect, such as the man who is deaf who reportedly requested the appropriate hearing device that the prison is required to provide for him.  The man reportedly made the request in February 2020, but was not provided the hearing device until June 2020 — four months later.

Credible accounts

In addition to the alleged abuse of those with physical disabilities, the ruling describes multiple abusive situations involving prison residents who have been classified as belonging to the specialized category of EOP, “Enhanced Outpatient Placement,” due to a diagnosis of severe mental illness, meaning “they require special housing,” and “special programming.”

Although prison officials disputed the accusations in general, according to Judge Wilken, CDCR officials failed to submit any evidence that countered the accounts of the prisons’ residents,  things like declarations by the officers who allegedly engaged in intimidation, threats, or coercion, in order to “dispute the occurrence of these incidents.”

In general, the judge wrote that she “found the inmate declarants to be credible,” in part because their descriptions of the behavior of the staff were “remarkably consistent,” and very detailed.

She also found them credible, she wrote,  because the CDCR presented no evidence that contradicted the version of events described in the declarations by inmates describing how staff had “threatened, intimidated, or coerced them when they requested reasonable accommodations, or indicated that they would file ADA-related grievances, and that this has caused them to refrain from requesting accommodations or filing ADA grievances,” even when they are experiencing “severe emotional distress.”

The experts and the ruling

As mentioned above, the CDCR didn’t bother putting forth evidence or declarations disputing the accounts of the individual prison residents. What they did instead, according to the judge, was to hire three “experts” to examine whether there was any “systemic denial” by the staff of the accommodations to which those with disabilities had a legal right, in the five named prisons.

Unsurprisingly, the CDCR’s experts — one of whom was former Secretary of the CDCR, Matthew Cate — all more or less sided with the state.

Judge Wilken noted Cate’s perspective on the case, then dismissed it, concluding that the staff in the five facilities had “failed to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled inmates’ disabilities,” that the staff engaged in unwarranted uses of force “such as throwing disabled inmates out of wheelchairs, punching them, kicking them, or using pepper spray — where the undisputed evidence shows that the disabled inmates pose no threat to staff that would warrant the use of such force.”

Based on the totality of the evidence, the judge concluded, “staff target inmates with disabilities and other vulnerable inmates for mistreatment”

Gay Grunfeld, one of the civil rights attorneys for the plaintiffs called Wilken’s ruling, “a great victory for incarcerated people with disabilities.”

The ruling, according to Grunfeld, will make it possible to “get some information and visibility on where the problems are so people can be held accountable.”


  • Whatever. Wake me up when SJWs are worried about regular people – you know, the ones not in prison.

  • “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”–Matthew 25:40.

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”–Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

    Evidently, the previous commenter does not understand what the treatment of prisoners in California–and in many other states–says about our society in general. Nor does he understand what his indifference says about *him*.

    Nor does he understand that the indifference of our government to its own laws means that even he, presumably innocent of any desire to break the law, could end up behind bars, subject to the same maltreatment he now finds himself indifferent to. He does not understand that *even a false accusation* can put anyone in prison for months or years, where they will suffer the inhumane conditions of prison just as the actually guilty do.

    Too often “regular people” find themselves awakened only when they or some loved one end up behind bars. But by then it’s far too late.

  • Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

    “No one can act alone in the name of all and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules.” – Jacques Chirac

    “I prefer a prison full of criminals than a graveyard full of innocent people.” – Jair Bolsonaro.

    “ Thieves must sit in prison.” – Vladimir Putin

    Have you ever lived an area where gangs and all their associated criminality are the norm? The fear for your safety and family because of random violence all while your just trying to work and go about daily living like everybody else. For the people who live in these areas or are the victims of crime they understand the need for laws, police and jails. It’s crazy to think everybody has some inner good just waiting to burst out. I’m sorry for those who may have come from a broken home, been the victim of abuse or be mentally ill.Does this give them the right to prey on and victimize innocent people again and again with no repercussions or thought to protect society from being re-victimized? Not everybody can be redeemed or restored and are perfectly happy going down the path they shoes, whether it be a journalist politician or career criminal. To believe it’s widespread that people are falsely arrested and sentenced to jail is such a tired argument. It is unfortunate that mistakes happen whether unintentional or intentional but the goal should be to improve the process versus getting rid of it all together. Anytime people you have people involved mistakes will of course happen. I don’t hear folks asking for all doctors to medical malpractice considering the hundreds of thousands of people (that we know of) who die every year due to medical malpractice. Try to have some empathy for victims, their families and think about the safety of society sometimes.

  • Well, Bill, what a typically woke response. Again, my issue is with liberals who are overly preoccupied with the criminal element, ala the ACLU.

    I’ve seen the penal system close up. Have you? No, not reading sterile reports written by libs. I mean close up – not a jail tour that lasts 30 minutes, not watching a documentary. You have no idea how good inmates have it in America. Free medical care, free food, free housing – all on the taxpayer dime. All one has to do is victimize the public, and the public ends up paying for these scumbags’ care.

    I’m sorry to hear you hate our Constitution and the laws that follow it. Complaining about “false accusations” is reaching. Yes, it happens, but if you ask 1,000 inmates if they are guilty, about 995 will say they were framed, set up by law enforcement, got the wrong guy, etc.

    What my response says about “me,” Bill, is that I’ve seen it and you have no clue but to quote convenient passages from the Bible to suit your woke agenda.

  • Here here! I’m constantly amazed and saddened by the cruel world view and ignorance of the public to the inhumanity that happens in prisons. The people like the first commenter reside in the same lane as the prison guards who get pleasure from doling out cruelty – to anyone, but especially to those who are weakest. They were the playground bullies and are little better than the worst of those they guard.

  • Hahahaa
    What a tool bag.
    A bible thumping liberal?
    Indifference to the “plight” of scumbags who victimize society isn’t the issue.
    The issue is libtards like yourself and the site operators who exploit this non issue to further victimize society.

    So here’s a verse for you and your liberal friends…allied with Antifa and BLM.

    Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.”

    Evidence is sitting in the White House.

  • Just for the record, I’m conservative, a Christian, and I’ve seen way too much and heard way to much of the inside of several California prisons due to a friend being incarcerated who in actuality, not longingly, IS innocent. Be careful about what you say, it can always happen to you or someone you care about. We are a civilized society and inmates are constitutionally protected citizens. Stop being ignorant.

  • What you just said? Have your really thought it through. Are the conditions in jails and prisons the way they are because the guards have created such a horrible environment that it “brings out the worst in these good people” or are thes criminals/prisoners/convicts so twisted, warped and evil that they create a society that reflects their inner self? I believe it’s the later. You can keep on believing prisons and jails are “living hells created by the state” and that their are countless innocent people locked away for no reason but grow up and stop being stupid.

    All countries have prisons for some reason? Imagine that! Some people break the rules of civilized society and need to be put away, simple as that.

  • The pathetic and inevitably unchanging part about all this people like dose of reality and major thong are given police power. They come together behind closed doors and smoothley put together ways around new rules and policies to suit their continuing criminal behahior. Until this stops things will never change. Like the Deputy im Louisiana was murdered bc he was against the quietly corrupt police practices its a sad reality. No one is going to go up against the badge. People want change but aren’t willing to go against them in the harshest way to get it. There will continue to be illegal police killing, beatings, no cam footage etc.

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