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California officials rebuked for not protecting disabled parolees

Appeals court rebukes California officials for refusing to help protect disabled parolees the state has redirected to county jails.

October 04, 2013|By Maura Dolan

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal appeals court rebuked California officials Friday for refusing to help protect disabled parolees the state has redirected to county jails.

The state has not challenged "the fact that the housing of parolees in county jails has led to widespread violations" of their civil rights, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Yet state officials "insist that they may no longer be ordered to take any action whatsoever that may serve to avert or alleviate such violations."

Judge Stephen Reinhardt, writing for the panel, lamented that disabled inmates have been engaged in "a seemingly never-ending struggle" with state officials to obtain wheelchairs, sign-language interpreters, accessible beds and toilets, tapping canes for the blind and other accommodations.

California prison officials "have resisted complying with their obligations at every turn," Reinhardt wrote.

To relieve prison overcrowding, the state has been sending inmates to county jails rather than to state lockups.

State parolees charged with violating the terms of their release now must await revocation hearings in county custody and serve sentences for parole violation in the jails. A federal disabilities rights law requires government to accommodate the disabled.

In an appeal of a lower court decision, the Brown administration argued that a state law intended to reduce prison crowding had stripped California of responsibility for parolees once they were shifted to the counties.

The 9th Circuit disagreed, upholding an order that requires state prison officials to track disabled parolees and alert the counties to their needs.

By failing even to inform the counties of the inmates' disabilities, the prisoners have been placed "into the vulnerable position of being dependent on other inmates to enable them to obtain basic services, such as meals, mail, showers and toilets," the court said.

The court ordered the state to pay the costs of the attorneys representing the inmates.

Inmate lawyers say there are thousands of disabled paroles awaiting hearings or serving sentences in county jails.

Although inmates are encouraged to tell jail officials of their disabilities and needs, they are more likely to get help if the state alerts the jails and provides verification of the parolees' requirements, lawyers said. State officials also are supposed to provide inmates with documents they can file to report violations.

"This is a great remedy, and we hope that this will be the last discussion we have to have about whether the state has to provide information and grievance procedures for parolees," said Gay Grunfeld, an attorney for the inmates.

The lawyer who argued the case for the state was unavailable for comment.

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