Federal judge orders body cams in five state prisons citing abuse of disabled inmates

Inmates at the state prison in Lancaster in 2010.
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

A federal judge has ordered that correctional officers wear body cameras and that surveillance cameras be installed at five California prisons, citing repeated abuse of inmates with disabilities.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken’s order was issued Thursday in a disabilities rights case. It requires the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to place the cameras at L.A. County State Prison in Lancaster; Corcoran State Prison and the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran; the California Institution for Women in Chino; and Kern Valley State Prison in Delano. The judge gave the prisons 21 days to make plans for instituting the cameras and 90 more days to get them operational.

“The Court finds that body cameras are likely to improve investigations of misconduct by staff and to reduce the incidence of violations of disabled inmates’ rights,” Wilken wrote. The judge also mandated reforms related to tracking disabled inmates’ complaints and the use of pepper spray.

The judge made her ruling after reviewing dozens of declarations submitted by prisoner and disability rights lawyers on behalf of inmates.

“Some of the incidents involve the use of force against mentally or physically disabled inmates even though the disabled inmates appear to have posed no imminent threat to the safety of staff or other inmates,” the judge wrote.

“The descriptions in these declarations of the behavior of staff toward disabled inmates are remarkably consistent,” she wrote. “Further, the declarants appear to lack any incentive to fabricate the incidents they describe with such great detail.”


The judge also ordered that there be a significant increase in the number of supervisory staff by “posting additional sergeants on all watches on all yards” at the five prisons.

In response to the ruling, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in a statement Friday said correctional officials “are evaluating the judge’s order at this time, but we take the safety and security of the incarcerated population very seriously, and vigorously work to protect those with disabilities.”

“CDCR has taken steps to improve conditions for people in our care to accommodate for both physical and mental disabilities, including holding staff accountable for behavior that goes against the department’s values,” the department stated.

Michael Bien, whose law firm represents the inmates, said the order “is the beginning of a long process to fix” abuse and violations of inmates with disabilities.

The order comes after officials at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego were ordered in September to install cameras amid accusations that disabled inmates were repeatedly abused by guards. Officers there began wearing body cameras in January.

Attorneys for inmates with disabilities had asked the judge to require cameras at seven prisons, but the judge found insufficient evidence of abuses at Salinas Valley State Prison and the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi.

In the 71-page ruling, the judge documented several incidents of abuse in justifying the need for cameras and other reforms. The judge noted that some inmates were too afraid to seek help.


At the Lancaster prison, an inmate with bipolar disorder was struck after complaining of hallucinations in June 2019, according to Wilken.

“After a mental health evaluation, he was being returned to his cell, while handcuffed, by two officers when the officers and the inmate had a verbal altercation; once they reached his cell, the officers slammed him to the ground face-first and punched him in the head,” the judge wrote.

In December 2019, an inmate experiencing a “manic episode” at the state prison at Lancaster was taken to the ground by several correctional officers and then one officer used an entire can of pepper spray on him and “beat the inmate,” the judge noted.

Wilken said she found the dozens of declarations submitted from the prisons by inmates credible.

Under the judge’s order surveillance cameras are required to be installed in housing units, exercise yards, gyms, dining areas and other areas. Video must be kept for 90 days. Wilken wrote that without surveillance cameras, mistreatment of disabled inmates is “likely to continue.”