California’s corrections department is on the verge of agreeing to an unprecedented legal settlement that would force Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego to handle staff misconduct allegations with greater accountability and transparency, an attorney representing incarcerated residents with disabilities in the case says.

But just as the year-long negotiations appear to be wrapping up, a legal challenge from the corrections department to block the court settlement in Armstrong v. Newsom is well underway. Legal experts said that puts the reforms at R.J. Donovan at stake.

Why this matters

For nearly three decades, federal litigation in the Armstrong case has sought to improve conditions in state prisons where disabled residents have faced discrimination. 

Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, which has one of the largest populations of disabled residents among California prisons, has been at the center of that litigation in recent years.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is pushing forward with an appeal which seeks to roll back court oversight over the settlement’s remedial plan — a legal agreement mandating sweeping reforms at the state prison, where incarcerated people with disabilities have said they’ve experienced widespread abuse and retaliation from corrections staff. 

The remedial plan would require corrections officers to wear body-worn cameras. It also would force prisons to increase video surveillance, staffing levels and training and make changes to staff investigation and discipline policies while working under oversight from the court. 

The appeal — quietly filed last fall — would remove the legal force of the court’s remedial plan, leaving it up to corrections officials to decide how to reform conditions at R.J. Donovan. 

Corrections lawyers have told the court that the department is committed to and capable of achieving meaningful reform without a court intervention. Some critics of the agency disagree.

Experts in civil rights and incarceration question whether the corrections department can be trusted to implement reforms without a court mandate and worry that significant progress toward disability rights for those incarcerated is in jeopardy.  

The final remedial plan is expected to be filed in court sometime in October, according to Penny Godbold, one of the lawyers negotiating the agreement on behalf of disabled residents at R.J. Donovan.

After more than a year of negotiating the reforms, Godbold’s team has until Oct. 7 to respond to the appeal in court. The agency’s continued pursuit of the appeal raises questions about its motives, Godbold said. 

“Why are they doing this? That’s a good question.”  

A long fight for protections 

Decades of federal litigation over the rights of incarcerated people with disabilities led up to the remedial plan for R.J. Donovan. 

The Armstrong case started in the 1990s when a group of incarcerated people with physical disabilities alleged they were denied access to education programs, work furloughs and credits, recreation activities, visitations and other services that non-disabled people behind bars could access. 

The case initially focused on structural barriers in the facilities’ construction and a lack of proper accommodations from staff. 

In the nearly three decades since then, the court has intervened repeatedly in prison operations as incarcerated people with disabilities continue to bring allegations of unfair treatment in California prisons.

In the most recent years of the litigation, R.J. Donovan has been at the center of allegations that corrections staff have targeted and retaliated against incarcerated people because of their disability status. 

The entrance to the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo. (Angela Carone/KPBS)

R.J. Donovan state prison has the second highest population of residents with disabilities in California. More than one-fourth of the 3,248 residents at the prison, as of Sept. 26, have a physical disability.

Disabled residents at R.J. Donovan described “nearly thirty discrete allegations of horrific abuse” in the six months leading up to the February 2020 filing, according to court documents.

The allegations include that corrections staff at R.J. Donovan physically assaulted disabled residents — many times targeting those in wheelchairs or who use walkers — denied them medical care, neglected serious needs and retaliated against whistleblowers. 

When residents tried to report the abuse, they often experienced more retaliation or the investigation process failed to hold corrections staff to account, Armstrong documents allege. 

The retaliation has had a chilling effect on residents at R.J. Donovan who rely on asking corrections staff for the disability accommodations they need and amounts to discrimination against residents with disabilities, according to lawyers representing the disabled incarcerated people.

In response to the allegations, a judge ordered R.J. Donovan last fall to enact reforms in order to better protect disabled residents. Lawyers for R.J. Donovan residents and the corrections department have been negotiating reforms in the remedial plan in nearly weekly meetings for more than a year, according to court documents.

Corrections officials say court intervention unnecessary

The corrections department has acknowledged the need for reform — and said some reforms are already underway — while pushing back on the Armstrong court intervention. 

The department is fighting the R.J. Donovan remedial plan with an appeal, a legal maneuver that could reverse the decision of the federal court if a higher court finds the judge made a mistake in her ruling. The appeal came in late September, less than three weeks after U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken ordered the remedial plan. 

Lawyers for the corrections department argue the court order is “intrusive” by imposing overly broad reforms that “micromanage” leadership and overlap with efforts already underway, according to the agency’s brief filed in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 

“Defendants take seriously the allegations of excessive force and retaliation by class members, and are continuing to take substantial measures to address and prevent abuse. However, the degree to which the court ordered relief … would be problematic in any case,” lawyers for the agency wrote in court documents. 

Dana Simas, Corrections press secretary, told inewsource that the agency remains committed to improving conditions for R.J. Donovan residents.  

“CDCR embraces the use of body-worn camera technology and the fixed audio/visual surveillance system expansion,” Simas said in an email. “We believe this will help promote overall safety, enhance security and staff accountability, assist with conducting use-of-force reviews, improve the detection of criminal activity, and reduce incidents and allegations of excessive or unnecessary force.”

More than half of corrections staff — nearly 500 corrections officers and nearly 50 corrections sergeants — have been using body-worn cameras at R.J. Donovan since January, Simas said. 

Wilken’s order only required body-worn cameras for corrections officers who interact with disabled incarcerated residents. Simas said the department has an additional 30 body-worn cameras in use for staff who transport disabled incarcerated residents to court appearances or hospitals.

The department began installing nearly 1,000 high-definition cameras in the “exercise yards, housing units, sally-ports, dining halls, program areas, gyms and other high-traffic areas where inmates regularly gather” in April as part of the remedial plan reforms, Simas said. 

“Immediately after CDCR leadership was made aware of staff misconduct allegations at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD), the department took actions to improve inmate-staff interactions,” Simas said. 

Lawyers for R.J. Donovan residents dispute in court documents that corrections officials made timely reforms that significantly improved conditions at prison. 

In public meetings earlier this year, corrections officials have acknowledged the need for immediate reform in state prisons. 

At a budget meeting in March, Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison committed to reforming the department’s misconduct investigations, echoing promises her predecessor made as well. 

 “I pride myself on being a person of integrity and this department being a department of integrity,” Allison said. “In order to do that, you have to have staff properly trained, you have to have an investigative and inquiry process that is thorough and transparent.”

At that meeting the department requested additional state funding to comply with the remedial plan reforms. The department received more than $90 million in the current budget year to comply with court-ordered reforms at R.J. Donovan and across the state prison system.

The agency’s request came six months after the department filed notice with the court of its intention to appeal the remedial plan.

That move raises questions for the court about the agency’s commitment to change, some say. 

“The argument is really about whether the state could be trusted to alleviate the concerns of the class members” without the remedial plan, said Robert Weisberg, the faculty co-director of Stanford’s Criminal Justice Center. 

If the state’s appeal is successful, Weisberg said debate in the courts over improving conditions for the disabled incarcerated population will likely continue, but through litigation of smaller issues at a time. 

“You’re not going to have great legal drama. You’re gonna have a lot of legal bureaucracy,” Weisberg said. 

Watchdogs document years of issues

Despite the corrections department’s claims in court, reform efforts in recent years have failed to improve some of the issues at stake in the remedial plan, records show. 

Multiple watchdog reports from 2018 to 2021 have documented serious abuse and misconduct allegations and an investigative system that fails to hold corrections staff to account.

As early as 2018, corrections’ own investigation revealed rampant allegations of physical abuse and retaliation against disabled residents incarcerated at R.J. Donovan. 

That year, then-Associate Warden Jason Bishop led a team of corrections department investigators in interviewing 150 residents in R.J. Donovan’s Facility C, where some residents with disabilities are housed. 

The team found residents repeatedly alleged that corrections staff abused them, blocked misconduct investigations and targeted residents with disabilities. 

Bishop made recommendations for improving conditions at R.J. Donovan, many of which are the same reforms recommended in the remedial plan: increased supervisory staff, surveillance cameras and additional training.

Attorneys for R.J. Donovan residents accused the department of failing to make meaningful changes after the Bishop report, according to court records.

In 2019, State Inspector General for Corrections Roy Wesley recommended significant changes to the department’s misconduct investigations after a report at Salinas Valley State Prison found the investigative staff showed bias, ignored evidence and compromised confidentiality.

“Our review of the process revealed a complete failure of the high level due process goals and that the process appears entirely driven by the purpose to exonerate staff,” Wesley said in a budget meeting in 2019.

In that year’s budget, the CDCR received $9.8 million from the state to create a new process that would make the investigations of alleged staff misconduct more independent. 

For the most part, that didn’t end up happening. 

In a report from February of this year, Wesley reported that the department failed to develop a system that provided state prison residents with fair investigations of complaints against staff. The department also failed to adequately track misconduct complaints to identify complaint trends in prisons.

R.J. Donovan, Wesley found, had acute problems with tracking misconduct complaints.

R.J. Donovan’s complaint logs often left out the first name and badge number of corrections officers involved in complaints, and in a facility that employs hundreds of people, that would make it “difficult — if not impossible” to identify which officers are named in the complaints, Wesley found. 

California assemblymember Phil Ting, whose district covers the west side of San Francisco, has been a vocal critic in public safety budget meetings over the years when the corrections department promised to make reforms after scathing reports from the inspector general’s office. 

“I really don’t have confidence in this department” to comply with the court mandate, Ting, who serves as the chairman of the California Assembly’s budget committee, told inewsource

Ting said he wasn’t aware that the corrections department had filed a motion to block the court’s intervention.

Allegations of abuse, retaliation continue

Disabled residents at R.J. Donovan say the abuse has continued throughout the past year of court negotiations. 

Four R.J. Donovan residents with disabilities have written to the court since February. They alleged that corrections staff have retaliated against them for their involvement in the Armstrong litigation or filed false rule violation reports against them. Those write-ups could affect a person’s time in prison.

One of the four residents said he has witnessed corrections officers who “target inmates with disabilities for daring to use any legal process,” he wrote in a March letter.

“Since being at RJD I have been in perpetual fear of utilizing the inmate appeal process to report anything since the appeals process only operates as a call signal for C/Os to start or increase their (campaigns) of terror,” he wrote.

Another inmate said that corrections staff are pushing back against the judge’s mandate for cameras inside the prison facilities. 

He wrote that “officers are routinely turning off body cameras” and blocking complaints against staff to perpetuate “the code of silence here at RJD.”

inewsource is not naming the inmates because they could not be reached for interviews.

Lawyers for R.J. Donovan residents have fought in court for the corrections department to recognize what they said is an “endemic use of false and retaliatory” rules violation reports. 

The corrections department said reforms already underway address the claims of false rules violation reports. 

Lawyers for the R.J. Donovan residents and the corrections department are still negotiating misconduct investigation and discipline policies, pepper-spray use policies and an early-warning system for staff complaints that would identify problem areas in the prison. 

If the court order remains in effect, some of the reforms that the parties agree on for the R.J. Donovan remedial plan will be implemented across the state.

The remedial plan made groundbreaking reforms for disabled incarcerated people, but the appeal puts that progress in jeopardy, an advocate for prison residents said. 

R.J. Donovan was the first prison in the state forced to equip corrections staff with body-worn cameras. Now, following expanded orders from Judge Wilken, more prisons around the state have followed suit.

A court-appointed independent expert tasked with overseeing the reforms said that the body-worn cameras at R.J. Donovan have already helped disabled incarcerated people and some corrections staff feel safer inside the facility.

But without a court mandate, Corene Kendrick, deputy director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, worries that the progress made toward transparency and accountability will be quickly rolled back. 

“Unfortunately, history has shown for the past several decades that CDCR will only take steps to reform itself when it’s been ordered to do so by federal courts,” Kendrick said. 

Before joining the ACLU last November, Kendrick worked on the Armstrong case for nearly a decade fighting for disabled people’s rights inside California prisons. 

The remedial plan was “a great victory” for disabled residents at R.J. Donovan and across the country, Kendrick said. Prison reform advocates looked at the remedial plan as an example of what’s possible nationwide, Kendrick said. 

Kendrick said the corrections department’s appeal calls into question their public promises for reform at R.J. Donovan. 

“If CDCR truly is interested in transparency and reform and takes this public position that they want to improve things at RJD and that they’ve already made all these reforms, it seems counterintuitive that they would be wasting time and money and resources appealing the order and fighting the order.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a general assignment reporter, following story tips from the community and covering important issues affecting day-to-day life in San Diego and Imperial counties. Sofía has interned at various local papers including San Diego CityBeat, Voice of San Diego and The San Diego...