A federal judge has formally granted a request by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Disability Rights California, Disability Rights Legal Center, and Winston & Strawn LLP to approve class action status for a lawsuit against Sheriff Lee Baca and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The class includes all prisoners who need accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) who are in the L.A. County Jail.  The order by Judge Dean Pregerson of the United States District Court for the Central District of California also includes all future prisoners with disabilities, who could potentially number thousands of men and women. Johnson v. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was filed in 2008 on behalf of five named plaintiffs with mobility impairments.

“It’s just and fair that the court issue a written order certifying that this case is on behalf of all inmates with mobility impairments,” said Jessica Price, staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. “Conditions in the L.A. County jails are generally abysmal, but those facing inmates in wheelchairs or with other mobility problems can be absolutely barbaric.”

When the lawsuit was filed, the central intake unit in the jail did not have a single wheelchair-accessible toilet, even though more than 180,000 people are booked into this area every year. Prisoners with disabilities were left to sit in their own excrement, or severely injured in falls in shower areas or while being transported to court. The sheriff’s department has corrected some of these problems in response to the lawsuit, but many still remain. Jail officials continue to deny inmates mobility devices such as wheelchairs, crutches, walkers or canes, even though they are medically prescribed.

According to Michelle Uzeta, legal director at the Disability Rights Legal Center, “The county has a heightened responsibility to inmates with disabilities in their custody. This order will allow us to seek the systemic relief necessary to remedy the rights violations we’ve seen over and over again at the jail.”

The lawsuit argues that the jail is not wheelchair accessible. Inmates with mobility impairments also experience discrimination because they are denied access to jail programs and services in violation of the United States Constitution, the ADA, and other state and federal statutes.

“The jail lacks adequate procedures to ensure that inmates with physical disabilities receive the accommodations they need, and those who complain are often thrown into solitary confinement as punishment,” said Stephen Smerek, a partner at Winston & Strawn, a private law firm assisting on the case pro bono. “This type of brutal retaliation is simply outrageous.”

“This lawsuit has gone on for far too long,” said b, litigation director at Disability Rights California. “Sheriff Baca says that he supports fair treatment and education-based incarceration. Prisoners with disabilities already face too many barriers in life. We call on him to bring this litigation to a rapid conclusion and give prisoners with disabilities the same opportunity to rise out of poverty and crime that he offers others in the jail.”