Landmark Settlement in Case of Inhumane Conditons in California Youth Authority; Major Reforms for Wards with Disabilities

Berkeley, CA – November 16, 2005 – In a sweeping consent decree filed today, the California Youth Authority (CYA), the state’s juvenile prison system,  has agreed to a major overhaul of the entire CYA system to address the inhumane and illegal conditions of confinement which currently affect the over 5,000 young inmates (referred to as “wards”) in the CYA system.  The case, Farrell v. Allen, was brought under state law as a taxpayer action to stop the CYA from using taxpayer funds to further illegal conditions within the CYA.  The case was filed by a coalition of lawyers from Disability Rights Advocates (a nonprofit legal center based in Oakland, California), Latham & Watkins, Prison Law Office, and Jones Day, LLP.

Caroline Jacobs, Senior Staff Attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, commented:  “The CYA has for too long been an inferno for troubled youth.  And it is made all the more horrific by the fact that the majority of youths incarcerated in the CYA are individuals with mental and physical disabilities.  The estimates are that as many as 85% of all wards have mental health or substance abuse problems.  This unprecedented consent decree is our best chance to bring compassion, treatment and rehabilitation to this vulnerable population.”

Although the CYA was once a national model, today, the CYA is a system in utter disarray.  Wards are not only in daily fear for their physical safety, but are also denied the basic rehabilitative, training and treatment programs which are required by state law.  In seeking to reform the CYA system, the lawsuit attacked the CYA’s failure to ensure the wards’ safety from violence and abuse by staff and other wards, due process violations in segregation determinations, illegal conditions of confinement in segregation, and disability discrimination.  It also cited inadequate medical and mental health care, inadequate access to education and to substance abuse and sex offender treatment programs and illegal denial of training, treatment, and rehabilitation.  In addition, the complaint charged denial of religious rights, improper and illegal conditions of confinement with regard to exercise opportunities, physical facilities, visiting, telephone calls and access to courts.

The urgent need for reform within the CYA was brought to the public’s attention earlier this year when counselors from the N.A. Chaderjian facility were accused of excessive force after having been caught on videotape beating two wards who were lying prostrate on the floor.  The six counselors involved in the incident were subsequently fired after an internal investigation and intense media pressure.  In addition, the fact that multiple wards have died in CYA custody this year further demonstrates that something is drastically wrong within the CYA.

The sweeping consent decree filed in Alameda County Superior Court today will overhaul the CYA system and address all these issues. Under the terms of the consent decree, the CYA will conduct a comprehensive review of operations and take steps to eradicate the foregoing problems.  In January of 2004, a jointly selected panel of experts concluded that conditions in the CYA mandated that systemic changes occur.  Accordingly, under the terms of the consent decree within the next six months the CYA will:

  • Develop a system to separate vulnerable wards from dangerous ones and provide intensive treatment to wards with mental illness.
  • Develop and implement a plan to reduce violence and the need for the use of force.
  • Develop a plan for the treatment and management of wards on suicide watch and with acute psychiatric needs.
  • Hire a qualified and properly certified Medical Director.
  • Decrease the amount of time that wards are held in isolation cells.
  • Develop a population control plan to prevent overcrowding.
  • Develop a plan to ensure programmatic access for wards with all types of disabilities.

On a longer term basis, the CYA has committed to develop remedial plans in connection with the jointly selected panel of experts to address the illegalities identified in the experts’ reports.  Remedial plans will be developed in the follow areas: General Corrections (includes access to the ward grievance system, gang-related violence issues, access to courts), Mental Health, Medical Care, Education (includes special education issues), Sex Offender Treatment and Disability Access.  Donna Brorby was jointly selected to serve as Special Master, overseeing implementation of the remedial plans and all other aspects of the consent decree.

As Sid Wolinsky, Litigation Director at DRA, noted in discussing the case “How we treat incarcerated young people with disabilities reflects on all of us.  This consent decree is a major step forward, but we have far to travel before wards with disabilities are treated with dignity and respect.”

Sid Wolinsky
Caroline Jacobs
Disability Rights Advocates
(510) 451-8644

Case Page

Farrell v. Allen