The Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

New documents in an ongoing lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation detail retaliation people incarcerated at Richard J. Donovan State Prison say they faced after raising abuse allegations.

Attorneys representing people with disabilities at Donovan have asked a judge for a temporary restraining order for two individuals, and that they be transferred out of the facility due to abuse and retaliation they experienced after providing declarations in the case. The motion is part of a broader lawsuit alleging rampant abuse by staff against individuals with disabilities incarcerated at the state prison.

One of the individuals in the documents was assaulted by staff on June 17, according to court documents. The other has faced a string of retaliatory acts, including PA announcements that she has been speaking with attorneys and internal affairs.

“The Witnesses are terrified and unsafe at RJD,” the motions reads.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

A different man who filed a declaration in the lawsuit has died in the facility since the initial complaint was filed in February, according to court documents. The filings contend he died after experiencing further abuse at the hands of officers. Both individuals seeking court-ordered protections submitted previous declarations describing the situation leading up to the man’s death and officer involvement.

One of the two individuals for whom attorneys are seeking protection is 69 years old and receives mental health care treatment. The other is 49, hard of hearing and also receives mental health services.

Since one of the individuals first started speaking with attorneys in the case, staff began calling him “rat,” “snitch” and routinely refusing to release him for his medications in a timely manner, the documents contend.

On June 17, the situation escalated.

Court documents lay out what the prisoner says happened:

At about 8:30 p.m., officers once again delayed his release for medication.

When staff finally released him –after everyone else in his building – he got into a verbal dispute with an officer who was working on the floor that night. The officer and another officer surrounded him and began threatening him. The man, who court documents describe as a small, older man who has trouble standing, was in his wheelchair and holding a cup of water to take his medicine with.

One of the officers slammed him to the ground. He landed on his head and stomach, face down.

The officer said something like “Explain that to the lawyers you talk to,” according to court documents. The officer then put his knee on the man’s upper back and neck. The man said he could not breathe.

After handcuffing the man, the officer stabbed his right arm with a key or some other sharp object and said, “This is for my homebody motherfucker,” the motion details. As staff escorted the man out of the building in his wheelchair, an officer announced over the PA system, “Yeah, motherfucker, that’s what you get … ”

The filings say the other individual has faced a series of retaliatory acts from staff after detailing in court documents the circumstances that led to another prisoner’s death.

That retaliation, the documents say, has included staff stepping on her hands and ankles while she was having a seizure, using other incarcerated people to threaten her and endangering her life by repeatedly announcing over public address systems that she was speaking with the Office of Internal Affairs and attorneys, court documents contend.

“[I]t is very obvious to everyone, including other incarcerated people, the danger that I have been placed in as a result of my participation in this case,” she wrote in court documents. “I do not think most people would….want to go through this danger just to be a witness.”

Retaliation is an ongoing problem, according to court documents.

For example, one of the class members in the lawsuit reported retaliation in her first declaration in February. In that filing, she described officers intentionally leaving her in handcuffs in her cell in solitary confinement for approximately 48 hours after she filed a Prison Rape Elimination Act complaint. In two subsequent declarations both submitted in June, she contends she was retaliated against for submitting the earlier declarations and participating in the litigation.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in the case told the court they worry that mailing legal documents to clients in the prison for them to sign and return exposes them to danger. According to court documents, attorneys “learned in the course of this investigation, trusting officers not to read legal mail from our office was too risky, especially considering that one of the officers accused of misconduct was placed in the RJD mailroom.”

Donovan also recently just reporter its first COVID-19 case among its incarcerated population.

A dozen staff members have tested positive since the end of April. Those incarcerated, staff members and attorneys have been raising the alarm that the conditions in the facility, which houses many people with disabilities and who are otherwise medically vulnerable, could fuel a particularly deadly spread of the virus.

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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