9th Circuit upholds California prison reforms, citing abuse of inmates with disabilities

Inmates walk the exercise yard at a prison
Inmates walk the exercise yard at a California prison facility in 2018.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Citing a “staff culture of targeting inmates with disabilities” within California prisons, a federal appellate court on Thursday upheld the legality of a set of measures aimed at improving the behavior of correctional officers.

The reforms, first ordered by a federal District Court judge in 2020 in response to prisoner complaints in a long-standing lawsuit against the state, include a requirement that officers in six state prisons wear video cameras and that the number of stationary cameras in prisons be increased. They also require the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to add more supervisors to prison staffs, and improve processes for investigating, tracking and disciplining officers who abuse prisoners.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld the lower court’s orders, finding the mandated changes were necessary in light of persistent abuse of disabled prisoners and the state’s “prior failures to improve their accountability systems in the absence of specific, court-ordered instructions.”


The ruling is the latest twist in a class-action lawsuit filed in 1994 by prisoners with physical and mental disabilities who alleged the abuse they suffered because of their disabilities violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

The panel’s findings also were another acknowledgment that the prisoners’ long-standing claims remain unresolved, in part because the state agency has not done enough to stop the abuse.

“In both of its orders, the district court found not only ongoing violations of class members’ rights at the prisons, but also a common source of those violations: the lack of sufficient accountability measures to address officers’ misconduct, which fostered a staff culture of targeting inmates with disabilities,” Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland wrote for the appellate court. “The record amply supports both conclusions.”

Friedland, an Obama appointee, was joined in her decision by senior Circuit Judge Susan Graber, who was appointed by former President Clinton, and Circuit Judge Eric Miller, a Trump appointee.

Vicky Waters, a CDCR spokeswoman, said the department was still reviewing the court’s decision but claimed many of the mandated reforms were already in place.

The department has expanded the use of surveillance and body-worn cameras “across prisons in the state” and has increased staff training, she said. In January 2022, it also issued new regulations for investigating staff misconduct allegations, she added.


“We are committed to ensuring accountability and results-driven changes to address the issues raised by the District Court,” Waters said.

Advocates for prisoners said the changes were badly needed to ensure that complaints from incarcerated people with disabilities — which have been discounted for decades — are addressed.

Gay Grunfeld, one of the prisoners’ attorneys, agreed that many of the reforms upheld by the appellate court are already in place thanks to the lower court’s order, but said the higher court’s ruling will help to ensure the improvements won’t be undone. She said the camera requirements are particularly important, because “without cameras, a code of silence reigns and the statements of incarcerated people are not believed.”

Grunfeld said her team had filed in court about 175 declarations from prisoners describing the treatment they received at the hands of prison staff. The prisoners have an array of disabilities including speech, hearing and mobility issues, kidney problems, learning disabilities and mental illness.

One prisoner who struggles with mobility asked for help carrying a heavy package, and an officer refused. When the prisoner threatened to file a complaint, the officer pepper-sprayed him, hit him with the spray canister and then kicked him, Grunfeld said.

When another prisoner who uses a cane asked to be handcuffed in front of his body instead of behind him, an officer slammed him to the floor instead, Grunfeld said. Other prisoners with mental illness who asked for help after feeling suicidal were simply ignored, Grunfeld said.


“We have many, many of these very disturbing examples,” she said. “It runs the gamut.”

The ruling applies to six prisons in the state: the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near San Diego; the California State Prison, Los Angeles County in Lancaster; Kern Valley State Prison in Delano; the California State Prison in Corcoran; the California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison in Corcoran; and the California Institution for Women in Chino.

The appellate panel upheld all the changes that U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ordered for the San Diego facility, including the use of body cameras, surveillance cameras, increased supervision, increased training and tracking measures, and restrictions on the use of pepper spray by officers.

For the other five facilities, the panel agreed with Wilken’s call for cameras and training and tracking of jail staff. It reversed her order mandating increased supervision and new rules for pepper spray at these prisons — finding the evidence was insufficient to support the need for those measures.

The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has already initiated changes to its pepper-spray policy and added sergeants to shifts to comply with the lower court’s order at all six facilities. Asked whether the appellate court’s decision not to uphold those mandates in five of the facilities would lead to more changes, Waters said “any next steps” would be determined by the state’s ongoing review of the appellate court’s decision.

Brandon Richards, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom, said the governor’s office was reviewing the decision and had no further comment Thursday.

Grunfeld said she hopes the state does not backtrack on any reforms, because all of them are “critical for oversight of the officers.”


She said the appellate court’s decision “could not have come down soon enough,” given the national focus on abuse by law enforcement — including in the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the more recent death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police.

“People inside prisons and jails are at even greater risk of the kind of brutality that we’ve seen nationally, and that people are starting to realize is so prevalent, particularly against Black and brown people,” Grunfeld said.

The appellate court’s ruling is not the end of the prisoners’ litigation.

The District Court has issued multiple remedial plans for the state to comply with in the case, and the prisoners’ attorneys and a court-appointed expert are monitoring the prisons for compliance with those plans — including by watching body-camera footage of alleged abuses by officers and determining whether the state is disciplining them properly, Grunfeld said.