Judge: California Violated ADA by Segregating Disabled Prisoners

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February 3, 2015;Los Angeles Times

A federal judge in Oakland, currently addressing a 20-year class action suit concerning the care of prisoners with disabilities, has ordered California to stop placing disabled inmates in solitary confinement units segregated from the general population.

The class action against the state cites the troubling yet all too common practice of overusing solitary confinement, often as a form of punishment. Judge Claudia Wilken said that by continuing to segregate the disabled inmates, the state violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevents discrimination based on a disability, as well as several court orders.

Solitary confinement involves detaching a prisoner from human contact, sometimes limited only to the prison staff, for 22 or 23 hours a day. In other more extreme situations, an inmate can be confined to the room for 24 hours with no human interaction.

The majority of the infractions were at one prison facility, Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility located in San Diego. While lawyers for both the prisoners and the state had agreed back in 2012 that the inmates would be given suitable housing, prison logs show that 211 inmates had been put in solitary confinement cellblocks despite court orders to stop the practice.

According to lawyers for the corrections department at the San Diego prison, the inmates were being kept in isolation temporarily while the state tried to accommodate a weekly influx of 400 to 600 inmates as prisoners were transferred between prisons. However, lawyers for the prisoners indicated the practice was seen at 10 other prisons, illustrating a pattern. The same facility in San Diego is currently undergoing construction to build a housing project in an effort to reduce the state’s prison population, as per a 2011 state law.

One inmate from the Deuel Vocation Center south of Sacramento spoke to the L.A. Times about his experience in isolation, where he was placed for three weeks because he requires a wheelchair. Like many others who are placed in isolation, the inmate described feeling suicidal. Another inmate who requires a cane to walk described a similar experience when he was placed in solitary confinement for 10 weeks. “I began to decompensate, my depression and paranoia became much worse, and I started experiencing frequent nightmares. Things got so bad that I seriously thought about taking my life.”

The objective of isolation has always been to punish a prisoner, either because the prisoner has broken a prison house rule or because he or she is a danger to other inmates. According to the last census report in 2005, more than 80,000 prisoners were being held in solitary confinement, and according to the Senate Subcommittee Hearing last year, the numbers are relatively the same now.

As could be predicted, for most inmates, the psychological toll of solitary confinement is devastating. Research into solitary confinement as a punishment dates back as early as the late 19th century, when a court opinion citing the effects of isolation on inmates in a prison in Philadelphia found:

“A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Last year, a Frontline documentary, “Solitary Nation,” profiled a prison in Maine that was slowly decreasing its use of solitary confinement and weaving inmates back into general population. Throughout the documentary, viewers see the grotesque cycle of the abuse prisoners suffer due to isolation: One inmate was sent to solitary for 30 days after starting a prison riot, but after being unable to cope with the effects of isolation, that 30-day sentence turned into several months. Rather than reforming the prisoner, his poor behavior was further reinforced and perpetuated by solitary confinement.

Therefore, it is even more damning that California would be forcibly keeping inmates that do not require such treatment there and further stripping them of their constitutional rights. As the treatment of disabled prisoners continues to be a contentiously debated topic, hopefully there will be a corresponding conversation on the viability of using solitary confinement, whether as punishment or as an unfortunate means of containing inmates.—Shafaq Hasan