By Shoshana Walter
One day in March, a blind man was booked into the San Bernardino County jail.
A parole violator, he could see only four inches in front of his face. At the West Valley Detention Center, according to his account, deputies assigned him the upper bunk in a cell at the top of a tall staircase. "The deputy laughed at me and told me I could see just fine," he recounted. Several days later, he missed a step and, flailing for a handrail, tumbled down the steel staircase. When he returned from the hospital in a wheelchair, deputies confiscated it.
The blind prisoner's account, dictated to an attorney, is one of dozens of complaints cited in a federal lawsuit alleging that the state violated the rights of disabled prisoners by not ensuring they would receive adequate care in county jails. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department did not respond to requests for comment.
The debate over the state's responsibility for disabled prisoners has taken on increasing importance as the state shifts the burden of housing many thousands of inmates onto the counties in a policy euphemistically known as "realignment."
The state, facing a federal court mandate to shrink its prison population, enacted the Public Safety Realignment Act last year, flooding county jails with felons, nonviolent offenders and parolees who have been rearrested. Among them are thousands of disabled prisoners with special medical needs.
For county governments already reeling from budget cutbacks, the cost of upgrading jails and caring for disabled prisoners could be huge.
"I'm crossing my fingers that we can accommodate some of those needs here in our county," said Undersheriff Dahl Cleek, of Tulare County, where advocates found disability rights violations earlier this year. "But it's not like we have a built-in hospital inside these jails. Those could bankrupt a county pretty quick."
For more than two decades, attorneys representing disabled prisoners have fought the state in federal court to improve their treatment.
In 1994, lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation alleging that the department housed disabled prisoners in poor conditions and discriminated against them by failing to provide equal access to programs and services.
The landmark suit, now known as the Armstrong case after lead plaintiff John Armstrong, ultimately compelled the prison system to improve its facilities and expand services for disabled prisoners. State prisons began keeping track of disabled inmates, giving them vests that identified their disability status and making sure they had access to showers, toilets, medical supplies and prison programs.
"We underwent tremendous changes," said Jeanne Woodford, the former corrections department director who helped implement the policies.
With the surge of inmates in county jails, lawyers for the disabled gathered dozens of complaints from prisoners and presented them to U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who deemed them evidence of widespread rights violations in county facilities. The cases included:
•At Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, an inmate with 80 percent hearing loss was denied a hearing aid and then disciplined for failing to listen to deputies' directions.
•In Santa Barbara County, a bipolar and suicidal parole violator said he was denied the medication he had received while in prison.
•In Sacramento County, a blind parole violator was denied a tapping cane, forcing him to rely on inmates and deputies to escort him to the toilet, the showers and meals. He had been permitted a cane in prison.
•In Los Angeles County, a paralyzed parolee reported that deputies replaced her custom wheelchair with a broken one, tying her feet to the footrests to keep them from dragging, then gave her a cell with a door that was not wide enough for a wheelchair. Deputies later returned her personal wheelchair.
•In Tulare County, an inmate with swollen legs from chronic liver disease reported that deputies had confiscated his cane. In prison, he had been allowed to use a cane.
•Also in Tulare County, a parole violator scheduled for knee replacement surgery was given an upper bunk; he fell 11 times while trying to climb onto his bed, he said. In prison, he had been assigned a lower bunk.
•In Butte County, a deaf inmate said he could not communicate with medical staff about an ear infection because the jail did not provide a sign language interpreter.
Woodford was asked by the prisoners' attorneys to review jail polices and the prisoners' complaints. She said many county jails are now in the same position the state prisons were before the Armstrong case was filed.
"County jails are providing accommodations only sporadically, resulting in significant harm to CDCR prisoners and parolees," Woodford said in a declaration to the court.
In August, Wilken upheld her earlier order that the state is responsible for disabled parole violators and prisoners who are being held in county facilities. She ordered the state to begin emailing jails with information about disabled prisoners coming into their care and describing the past services they received. She also ordered the state to give prisoners grievance forms and investigate complaints.
Since Sept. 10, the state has notified county jails that more than 1,300 of their newly arrived inmates are disabled.
Gay Grunfeld, the lead attorney for prisoners in the Armstrong case, said the judge's order would improve conditions in the jails.
"This idea that the state and the counties are totally separate is just inconsistent with reality," she said. "I'm very confident that providing information about the particular parolees is going to help everybody improve."
The state, however, has appealed Wilken's decision. And in June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation declaring that any parolee locked up in a county jail is under the county's "sole legal custody and jurisdiction."
County officials are concerned that if the state prevails, they may be on the hook for expensive jail renovations, long-term treatment programs and services such as sign language interpreters.
"It's a question that we don't yet know the answer to," said Butte County Undersheriff Kory Honea. "Certainly, there is the possibility that litigation costs, or the costs associated with retrofitting the facility or providing accommodations could increase. It could be substantial."
But Grunfeld said county jails have no excuse for not following the federal law that protects all Americans with disabilities.
"If they're worried," she said, "they should start complying."