Thursday, November 29, 2001
Ninth Circuit Upholds Injunction Against State on Rights of Disabled Prisoners Seeking Parole
By a MetNews Staff Writer
State officials have repeatedly and systematically discriminated against disabled prisoners in connection with their parole hearings, making a systemwide injunction appropriate as a means of redress, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court affirmed, with a few modifications, an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California following a 10-day bench trial two years ago.
Wilken ordered the Board of Prison Terms to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act by identifying disabled prisoners and their needs and providing them with accessible locations for parole hearings, assistance in communicating, and special aid in the screening, appeals, and grievance processes. She also prohibited the board from shackling inmates who needed to communicate through sign-language interpreters, absent prior approval from a person selected by the chairman of the Board of Prison Terms.
The board was also ordered to hire a fulltime coordinator to oversee ADA compliance and to give special ADA training to all employees involved in the parole process.
The parole issues are part of a broader class action filed by disabled prisoners in 1994, charging that the department generally discriminates against prisoners with various impairments, including mental retardation, in its programs. In an earlier phase, the judge found that the ADA and Rehabilitation Act were applicable to prisons and entered an injunction, which was upheld by the Ninth Circuit, disposing of all issues other than those relating to the parole process.
Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing yesterday for the Ninth Circuit, rejected the state’s contention that the injunction regarding parole hearings was overbroad and violated the Prison Litigation Reform Act. The act requires, among other things, that injunctions regarding prison conditions be “narrowly drawn” and “extend[ ] no further than necessary to correct the violation of the Federal right.”
The injunction must also be “the least intrusive means necessary to correct the violation.”
Those requirements were satisfied in this case, Reinhardt said, noting that many of the steps ordered by Wilken—such as hiring an ADA coordinator and accommodating the disabled so that they can communicate at public meetings—are already required by law.
The judge also rejected the state’s reliance on Turner v. Safley , 482 U.S. 78 (1987), which held that a prison regulation which impinges on constitutional rights will be upheld “if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.”
Reinhardt questioned whether that ruling applies to parole hearings. But even if it does, the judge said, it provides no defense in this case because the board “repeatedly failed to adduce any justification, rational or not, for its ADA policy.”
The appellate jurist acknowledged the state’s concern that the injunction might be construed as compelling the Department of Corrections to transport impaired prisoners to remote facilities for hearings, which the state said raises security concerns. Reinhardt said the injunction would be construed only to require that the board request the department to transport a prisoner to an accessible location when the facility at which the inmate is housed is inadequate.
“The Department may, for valid security or other penological reasons, decline to do so,” Reinhardt wrote, although he pointed out in a footnote that under the earlier injunction, prisoners with limited mobility are to be kept at accessible facilities.
Reinhardt did conclude that the class certified by the district judge was overbroad, in that it included sexually violent predators, mentally disordered offenders, and prisoners or parolees with renal impairments—groups not represented by any named plaintiff. On remand, he said, the injunction must be narrowed to exclude those groups or the complaint must be amended to add appropriate plaintiffs.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima joined in the opinion, while Judge Marsha Berzon concurred separately.
The case is Armstrong v. Davis, 00-15132.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company