LOS ANGELES (AP) — A federal judge has given initial approval to an agreement that requires the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to improve conditions in its jails for inmates using wheelchairs and others with impaired mobility.
Monday’s preliminary approval of a 23-page settlement agreement with the ACLU of Southern California comes six years after attorneys filed the class-action suit alleging discrimination and violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth and 14th amendments.
Now former jail inmates and people who can arguably claim to be future inmates can submit objections to the ACLU through Jan. 12. Objectors may appear before the court at a March 23 hearing and be allowed to testify before the agreement is finalized.
Improvements include equal access to jail programming, more wheelchair-accessible cells and showers, and that wheelchairs are provided when needed. The agreement also creates an Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator specifically for inmate issues who will interact with people in the jails as well as their family members.
That coordinator is already in place, said Chief Dave Fender, who heads Custody Services Division Specialized Programs.
The law enforcement agency has denied the allegations in the complaint, but it is already making changes as required under the agreement.
The department is constructing more jail cells accessible to the mobility-impaired, more than doubling the number from 200 to 450, with a great number being built in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, ACLU staff attorney Jessica Price said. Grab bars are also being added throughout the jail facilities, she said.
“We’re dealing with jail facilities that were built prior to the requirement of ADA type access for individuals,” Fender said. “And so how do you take a footprint, infrastructure, and adapt it? With Men’s Central Jail, it’s nearly impossible.”
The agreement also provides for a new complaint process through the chief physician in the jails so that if any deputy requires an inmate to get out of their wheelchair, there is the option of a secondary review to ensure medical issues are part of the decision, Price said.
The complaint detailed stories of inmates who were held in the inmate-reception center for three days with no access to a wheelchair-accessible bathroom. Inmates soiled themselves and had to wait a long time to get a change of clothes. Inmates who wanted to shower in the jails often couldn’t access it with their wheelchairs and needed other inmates to carry them in, Price said.
“If you needed a walker or crutches or cane and you went to county jail, you were screwed,” Price said.
Price said that because there weren’t enough wheelchairs, inmates were ordered out of theirs to provide it to others. Those who didn’t do so were sent to “the hole,” or solitary confinement. And wheelchairs that were in use often didn’t have functional brakes or weren’t well maintained, she said.
The agreement requires the department to maintain the wheelchairs and make sure they all have brakes.
Los Angeles County has examined replacing the 50-year-old Men’s Central Jail with a new facility. It’s expecting a more detailed report on the cost — estimated at up to $2 billion — in March, Fender said.
“It would be a facility that was designed to better treat and provide programming space for the mentally ill, and to also provide a better facility for” mobility-impaired people, he said.
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