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Lawsuit alleges discrimination against disabled inmates

November 15, 2012 |  1:31 pm

Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif

A lawsuit filed Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court alleges that the state’s third-largest county jail discriminates against inmates with disabilities by denying them accessible toilets, showers and visiting areas; keeping them in the infirmary in conditions that amount to isolation; and depriving them of the ability to participate in educational and other rehabilitative programs that could lead to reduced sentences.

The lawsuit targeting Santa Rita Jail, in Dublin, comes after failed efforts to negotiate improvements at the facility, said Shawna Parks, co-director of litigation for the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates. The group joined forces with the Los Angeles-based Disability Rights Legal Center to represent current and former inmates and their families, as well as two Alameda County taxpayers.

It comes as county jails throughout the state are experiencing an influx of low-level state offenders routed to them under California’s  realignment program.

“They’re getting more people in general into the country jails, and that includes people with disabilities,” said Parks, who noted that a number of jails statewide were struggling to make the accommodations required by law. “It means that the fix is even more necessary.”

Disability Rights Advocates attorney Stuart Seaborn said problems in the Santa Rita Jail, which houses more than 4,000 inmates, dated back a number of years, but “there’s been a vociferous rise in complaints as realignment has kicked into gear.”

A spokesman for the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the facility and is the target of the lawsuit, said he had not yet reviewed the complaint and could not comment.

The lawsuit contends that the lack of accessible facilities and assistive devices, and the practice of holding disabled inmates in the infirmary when they could be accommodated in their cells, amounted to “systemic and long-term discrimination [that] has resulted in the unequal treatment of and severe harm to individuals with disabilities housed at the [j]ail” in violation of state law.

Among the incidents detailed: An inmate who uses a wheelchair was held for six months in a cell lacking grab bars that would have allowed him to transfer to the toilet, forcing him to ask his cellmate for assistance, soil himself and fall when he attempted the transfer on his own.

Inaccessible showers have required inmates to be escorted to facilities farther away, denying them the opportunity to bathe daily. Holding cells used for inmates prior to court dates and medical appointments lack accessible features, and in at least one case prompted an inmate to soil himself and attend his hearing with no other change of clothes.

The suit noted that inmates who have requested to be moved to cells with better accommodations have been denied because those cells were full. It seeks no monetary damages but demands that the problems be corrected.

"What is happening at Santa Rita is wrong on so many levels" Michelle Uzeta, legal director for the Disability Rights Legal Center, said in a statement. "Civil rights are routinely violated, and the jail's correctional rehabilitation model is rendered effectively unavailable for an entire population of people.”


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Photo: Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, Calif. Credit: Dave Getzschman / For The Times