The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

A federal judge Tuesday ordered correctional officers at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa to wear body cameras while interacting with inmates, a first for California.

The ruling comes in a civil rights lawsuit over disabled inmates’ rights, in which a federal judge found evidence to support allegations of physical abuse of prisoners at the prison, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The order applies to interactions with all inmates with disabilities inside the Otay Mesa facility, according to The Times.

Attorneys for the inmates with disabilities had asked the judge to issue an order mandating body cameras for correctional officers after documenting widespread physical abuse of the inmates, the Los Angeles Times reported.

“Body cameras have never been used in California prisons. This is a very important order to help put an end to physical abuse and broken bones of those with physical disabilities at this most dangerous of prisons,” attorney Gay Grunfeld told The Times. Her law firm, along with the Prison Law Office, represents the plaintiffs.

“Body cameras can bring sound and context to situations that involve the use of force which surveillance cameras cannot.”

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken gave the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation a timetable that effectively gives it five months to get the body-worn devices into use. She also ordered that records from body cameras be preserved from use-of-force incidents and that policies be created, The Times reported.

Dana Simas, the press secretary for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a statement to The Times the department takes “the safety and security of the incarcerated population very seriously, and vigorously work to protect those with disabilities. We will be carefully evaluating the order.”

Wilken also ordered the installation, within four or five months, of widespread surveillance camera systems at critical areas of the prison and the establishment of third-party expert monitor oversight of evidence gathered at the prison, according to The Times.

The Oakland-based judge ordered those actions as part of an injunction she granted as part of a bigger plan to address allegations of repeated physical abuse and retaliation against disabled inmates who complain about the prison facility, The Times reported.

Wilken is handling a class-action lawsuit that seeks to guarantee the rights of state prisoners under the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to The Times.

The ruling Tuesday applies to the single prison, but Wilken is expected to hear another motion next month that examines evidence of abuses across the state prison system and seeks to implement the use of body cameras across 35 prisons, The Times reported.

The injunction Tuesday was granted based on 112 sworn declarations from inmates that lawyers said showed staff “routinely use unnecessary and excessive force against people with disabilities, often resulting in broken bones, loss of consciousness, stitches or injuries that require medical attention at outside hospitals,” according to The Times.

— City News Service

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