Lawsuit Defends Rights of Disabled Inmates at Santa Rita Jail

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.

Related Stories:

SCOTUS Affirms California Prisoner Release

The Drugging of the Developmentally Disabled In State Institutions

The US Prison System: A Multi-Million Dollar Industry

Photo Credit: Andrew Bardwell


gloria k.

I really liked you input. Well said!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Mary L.
Mary L5 years ago

And this is suppose to stop crime?

Ajla C.
Past Member 5 years ago


Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago


ryan burger
Ryan B5 years ago

How about having a prison for the people who need help like this so that their "rights" are not stepped on? In my opinion, they lost all rights when they broke the law and were caught and put in jail, but it shouldn't be another inmates job to help them on/off the toilet.

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Some great comments. Here's a just a few names of people proven innocent by DNA testing, and the length of time served for crimes they didn't commit:

George Allen more than 30 years
Donte Booker served 18 years
Jimmy Ray Bromgard served 15 years
Danny Brown served 15 years
Larry Fuller served 26 years
to list just a few.....

Go to The Innocence Project and be amazed by what this organization has done for the people who spent years of their lives because of unjust cops, courts, and laws, and then tell me they deserve to be there because they committed a crime. Yeah right! The real criminals are a lot higher up on the food chain!

Virginia B.
Virginia B5 years ago

What happens to all of our flaming fundamentalists (who just "cherry pick" the Bible) when it comes to our basic humanity -- prisoner or not!? As a person, who can't get around without my prosthesis, I've found myself in predicaments, where I'm unable to access accommodations for relieving myself or cleansing myself. Basic humanity should dictate to these prisons that they must give those handicapped prisoners special access.
I'm just wondering if the Santa Rita prison is state-run or by a private company?? The latter being one Dubya's sell-outs to private enterprises, which has been disastrous, as far as I can tell!

Richard T.
Richard T5 years ago

thank you!

Cat C.
Cat C5 years ago

I don't know of any counties within California that are better off financially than the state, so I never could understand how this shift was supposed to work out.

Maureen Leibich
Maureen Leibich5 years ago

Marilyn L.--I really like your idea of the housing. I have never heard of a prison--be it a county jail or state prison--being called a rehabilitation center. Neither have I ever been told that these places really rehabilitate criminals. Originally, that is what they were supposed to do to the best of my knowledge. Sadly, there are too many people in our prison system, and there are not enough trained in ways to help rehabilitate them. Of course, there are those who cannot be rehabilitated no matter what we try to do for them, but does that mean we should ignore the others who can be rehabilitated? Certainly, we should not ignore the needs of those disabled. They must be furnished with accessible facilities, canes, crutches, wheelchairs, and whatever else they need. No one should be humiliated by not being able to make it to the bathroom, having an accident because of this, and having to go to court in his/her dirtied clothing. Everyone deserves to be treated with simple human dignity and compassion.

Have you ever known an animal who was abused so that it would fight, and was then re-trained to become a beloved family pet? Just think of the dogs Michael Vick abused. Many of them became loving family pets. If we can do that much for violent dogs, why do we think it wrong to try to do that for people who have made serious mistakes in their lives?