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Federal court rules California prison officials failed to protect disabled inmates

Judge Claudia Wilken of the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] ruled on Friday that California prison officials have failed to protect disabled parolees by not providing them wheelchairs and other mobility assistance devices. She stated that prison officials have failed to comply with her ruling in a 1994 suit [San Francisco Chronicle report] that required prisons to provide assistance for disabled inmates. Prison officials argued that the mobility assistance devices could be used as weapons and that they are not responsible for disabled inmates. Wilken ruled that as it is the state's decision to revoke parole, must protect disabled parolees' legal rights when they are confined. She also held that prison officials had to provide wheelchairs and chains, could not deny inmates the right to file and grievances and could not exclude disabled inmates form drug treatment programs.

The Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] ruled in Brown v. Plata [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] to uphold an order [JURIST report] requiring California to release up to 46,000 prisoners to remedy the state's overcrowded prisons [JURIST news archive]. Counsel for the state of California argued that the "extraordinary and unprecedented order ... requiring the release of between 36,000 and 45,000 inmates ... is extraordinarily premature." Counsel for the prisoners argued that the court must allow the lower court to provide a remedy for 20 years of overcrowding that has violated inmates' constitutional rights. The California prison system was operating at nearly 200 percent capacity. The three-judge panel, whose decision was upheld by the Supreme Court, ordered California to reduce the population by 46,000 inmates to be under 137.5 percent institutional capacity within two years. California Governor Jerry Brown [official website] submitted a plan [JURIST report] to comply with the court order and relieve prison overcrowding in June. As of January, California has reduced its prison population by 11,000 prisoners [report to court, PDF] and is now operating at 167 percent capacity.

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