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Federal Court Dubs Isolation Of Disabled Inmates Unconstitutional

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that California illegally housed disabled inmates in solitary confinement, and can no longer do so in the future.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken determined that holding disabled prisoners in segregated units, due to limited housing, is a breach of the Americans with Disabilities Act. From July 2013 to July 2014, 211 disabled people were confined to segregated cells, where inmates typically experience intensified security and “fewer privileges” than others. For example, their ability to exercise was limited, as were opportunities to use phones and receive mail. But the ADA states that “No qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation was previously told to remove inmates with disabilities, including individuals bound to wheelchairs, from isolation.

In recent years, California has undergone a major overhaul of its criminal justice system. After a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that California’s prisons were overcrowded by 30,000 people, which constituted cruel and unusual punishment, the state was ordered to reduce its inmate population. But despite excuses about why it could not do so, and years of push-back from Gov. Jerry Brown, the prison population finally dropped below the maximum limit of 113,722. As of last week, there were 113,463 inmates. Last November, state voters also approved Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for drug and theft crimes.

Inmates’ lawyers alleged that 10 prisons violated the ADA, but the bulk of evidence came from a San Diego prison, the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility. Wilken ordered the corrections department to determine how it would comply with her ruling within 30 days, but the department has yet to decide whether or not it will appeal the judgement.

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