Judge orders body cameras on guards at state prison, citing evidence of officers abusing inmates
For the first time, California correctional officers will be required to use body cameras while interacting with inmates inside a state prison, a federal judge ordered Tuesday.
The ruling comes in a civil rights lawsuit over disabled inmates’ rights, in which a federal judge found evidence to support allegations of physical abuse of prisoners at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. The order applies to interactions with all inmates with disabilities inside the Otay Mesa facility.
Attorneys for the inmates with disabilities had asked the judge to issue an order mandating body cameras for correctional officers after documenting widespread physical abuse of the inmates.
“Body cameras have never been used in California prisons. This is a very important order to help put an end to physical abuse and broken bones of those with physical disabilities at this most dangerous of prisons,” said attorney Gay Grunfeld, whose law firm, along with the Prison Law Office, represents the plaintiffs.
“Body cameras can bring sound and context to situations that involve the use of force which surveillance cameras cannot,” she said.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken gave the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation a timetable that effectively gives it five months to get the body-worn devices into use. She also ordered that records from body cameras be preserved from use-of-force incidents and that policies be created.
State corrections officials declined to address the findings.
“We are unable to comment on specifics of ongoing litigation, but we take the safety and security of the incarcerated population very seriously, and vigorously work to protect those with disabilities. We will be carefully evaluating the order,” Dana Simas, a spokeswoman with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said in a statement.
Wilken also ordered the installation, within four or five months, of widespread surveillance camera systems at critical areas of the prison and the establishment of third-party expert monitor oversight of evidence gathered at the prison.
Wilken ordered those actions within an injunction she granted as part of a bigger plan to address allegations of repeated physical abuse and retaliation against disabled inmates who complain about the prison facility.
Wilken, an Oakland-based judge, is handling a class-action lawsuit that seeks to guarantee the rights of state prisoners under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Though police forces across the country, including the Los Angeles Police Department, use body cameras, their use in prisons is relatively rare.
The ruling Tuesday applies to the single prison, but the judge is expected to hear another motion next month that examines evidence of abuses across the state prison system and seeks to implement the use of body cameras across 35 prisons.
Grunfeld said the attorneys have documented abuses at other prisons, including Corcoran.
The injunction Tuesday was granted based on 112 sworn declarations from inmates that lawyers said showed 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.”
According to the court, nearly one-fourth of all uses of force on inmates at the prison between 2017 and 2019 involved disabled inmates despite those inmates being the least capable of violent conduct.
“The court finds that this high incidence of incidents involving the class members tends to give additional credibility to the inmates’ declarations ... that staff at RJD targeted class members and other vulnerable inmates for physical and other forms of abuse.”
The judge gave the corrections department a couple of months to come up with a plan for using the body cameras and surveillance cameras at all critical areas of the prison. All footage would be retained for a minimum of 90 days, with videos of “use of force and other triggering events involving class members at RJD [to] be retained indefinitely.”
In court papers, the judge noted that the corrections department argued that body cameras are not as useful in prison as surveillance cameras and that it would take far longer to get them up and running.
“The court finds the body cameras are likely to improve investigations of misconduct by RJD staff,” the ruling stated.
The prison has had other recent issues. Last month, seven correctional officers were hospitalized after being attacked by 20 inmates. An associate warden subsequently quit, saying prison leadership had allowed no pat-downs on the yard to reduce conflict.
In July, Wilken issued a temporary restraining order requiring the corrections department to transfer two inmates from the prison who had been allegedly retaliated against by guards for making statements to lawyers about previous allegations of violence by correctional officers. Grunfeld said a guard threatened witnesses in the cases.
The decision was based not just on prisoners’ declarations but also on two investigations by the state that found abuses, Grunfeld said. The state, the judge noted, did not challenge many of the allegations.
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