Under prison realignment in California, jails across the state have been flooded with inmates transferred from state-run institutions in an attempt to reduce crowding and meet a Supreme Court mandate to lower the load on California prisons. The result has been a struggle in many individual counties ill-equipped to meet the needs of a growing number of inmates, especially disabled inmates, who need accessible cells, medical treatment, access to mobility aids, and other critical services.
At the state’s third-largest county jail, Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, disabled inmates have been facing deplorable conditions, outlined in a lawsuit filed last week by the Disability Legal Rights Center and Disability Rights Advocates. Inmates were held in inaccessible cells, forcing them to rely on cellmates for assistance with toilet transfers, for example, which often resulted in falling and soiling themselves. One inmate was forced to attend a hearing in urine-soaked garments after a toilet accident. Other inmates are kept in isolation in the infirmary despite the fact that they don’t have acute medical needs which might require continuous monitoring.
Disabled inmates at Santa Rita aren’t provided with fresh air and exercise, and in some cases have trouble seeing visitors because visiting areas are inaccessible. Some are denied participation in programs that could shorten their sentences, while others have been denied mobility aids like canes and wheelchairs by guards. This kind of abuse is troubling, and reports indicate Santa Rita Jail is not the only location where disabled inmates are experiencing abuse at overloaded jail facilities incapable of providing routine care.
Rather than seeking monetary damages, the suit demands the Alameda County stop using tax dollars to further discriminatory practices at Santa Rita. The facility is violating both state and federal civil rights law as well as human decency, and it’s notable that these egregious violations are occurring within the borders of a county known for its active and lively disability community. Berkeley in particular is known for hosting a thriving activist community responsible for a number of anti-discrimination pushes throughout the Bay Area. It’s telling that abuse of disabled inmates should take place in the heart of West Coast disability rights activism, illustrating how pervasive ableism is in U.S. institutions and culture.
The suit is certainly drawing attention in California among both disability rights advocates and prison reform advocates, and it could set a precedent which might be used to push for better conditions at other jail facilities in the state. Strikingly, the Santa Rita suit shows that prison realignment is not working as intended in California, if the goal was to make conditions more humane for prisoners and inmates across the state. Shifting the load to individual counties has come with its own abuses, and in some cases has made it more difficult to track these violations.
Meanwhile, disabled inmates at Santa Rita Jail wait for accessible facilities and access to the same rehabilitation programs available to nondisabled inmates. Given that the suit could drag on for some time, it may be a long time waiting for many of them.
Photo Credit: Andrew Bardwell