Six years after a lawsuit alleged horrific conditions for inmates in wheelchairs, Los Angeles County officials have agreed to wide-ranging changes to bring their aging jails into compliance with federal disability law.
Inmates described soiling themselves in an intake area because the bathroom was not wheelchair accessible, having to use wheelchairs with no brakes and falling when trying to use jail toilets because there were no grab bars on the walls. Showers had ledges that made it dangerous to enter in a wheelchair, they said.
Some said they were sent to disciplinary housing when they did not obey orders to stand up and relinquish their wheelchairs.
The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge at a hearing on Monday, calls for jail officials to make improvements, including providing functioning wheelchairs and giving disabled inmates access to work and educational programs. It applies to all inmates who have difficulty walking, such as those who need wheelchairs, walkers or crutches. The agreement does not include a monetary payment, except for $2.2 million in attorneys fees.
Two wings of the Twin Towers jail have already been fitted with wheelchair-accessible toilets and showers, as required by the settlement. The county jail system now employs an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator, and inmates may appeal to the jail's chief physician if they are denied the use of a wheelchair or walker.
The Sheriff's Department's new inspector general will monitor the agreement for three years.
One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Jessica Price of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said conditions have improved recently. But she questioned why the county fought the lawsuit when the jails clearly were not providing for disabled inmates' basic needs.
"There was no rational basis for the county to dispute the fact that there were bathrooms that wheelchairs could not access," Price said. "That was not a factual question, yet the litigation went on for six years."
The dilapidated Men's Central Jail, where the plaintiffs were housed, was not designed for disabled inmates, said Chief David Fender of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, which has spent about $100,000 on 118 wheelchair-accessible beds in Twin Towers.
Another 96 beds will cost $800,000 because of the extensive infrastructure renovations needed for the conversion, Fender said.
"We're talking about facilities that were built years before the ADA came on the scene," Fender said, referring to the Americans with Disabilities Act. "We were trying to work around the infrastructure problems."
One plaintiff, Andre Butler, fell several times trying to get from the toilet to his wheelchair because some toilets did not have grab bars, according to the lawsuit. His jail-issued wheelchair had no brakes, and the seat was so worn that he sat directly on the metal frame.
Butler said he spent four months in disciplinary segregation because he refused to give up his wheelchair when deputies tried to make him switch to a walker or crutches.
Another plaintiff, Columbus Grigsby, said that when he arrived at Men's Central Jail, his cane was taken away but he received no replacement, forcing him to crawl on the floor. He was eventually provided with a wheelchair, but it had no footrests, which he needs because his leg is partially paralyzed. He fell getting out of the shower because there were no grab bars at the exit, according to the lawsuit.
Grigsby said he spent 20 days in solitary confinement because he disobeyed a deputy order to use a walker, which was impossible because his left arm is paralyzed.
In a phone interview, Grigsby said he recently did a second stint at the county jail, this time in the handicapped-accessible wing of Twin Towers that opened in October 2013. It was an improvement, he said, though at times the showers and elevator were not working.
"It's a little bit better. They have better facilities," said Grigsby, 57, who was released last month. "But it's still the same old thing. The deputies' attitudes haven't changed."